Tag Archives: bangkok

Schooled by Bangkok – a photo essay…

piece of cake?

Soon after I arrive pretty much anywhere, I try, as a dutiful Swede, to find the nearest IKEA.  I was determined not to make Bangkok an exception so earlier today, I set out to find the Bangkok IKEA.

I’d noticed a while ago that despite the fact that I don’t get cell service on my iPhone, if I look up directions to a location while I have wifi and then keep the map app open, my location is triangulated despite the lack of reception and I can tell where in the city I am by following the little blue tracking dot (pictured above).

Knowing this, I typed “IKEA Bangkok” into my phone and was delighted when the IKEA cafe popped up.  The cafe is after all, half the reason I go to IKEA in the first place.

As it was a Sunday, I figured I’d take my time and take some pictures while navigating to IKEA.  One of my first stops was at my local Muay Thai (thai boxing) training gym.

I wasn't luck enough to see anyone sparring in the ring...

Cockfighting is as big in Thailand as bull fighting is in Spain.  And it seemed that the area around the Muay Thai gym was all about combat sports because I came across these two fighters being prepped for their time in the ring:

Prep before the cockfight...

All was well as I walked across the bridge above a river where I had seen a lizard the length of an alligator the week prior.

I arrived at a busy market and found my favorite omelet stand.  This was the stand where Jammie and I had eaten on our first night in Bangkok.

the spiciest omelet you'll ever have...

As I made my way through the market my pace slowed as I fell into step with the heavy pedestrian traffic.  I paused to admire the inventive cheese on this shirt….

and was tempted to rummage through my local Dollar (or less) store…

I was greatly heartened to see this beacon of hope at one of the stalls… I was on my way!!

but not before documenting these Angry Birds sushi rolls… Amazing.

I took off again.

through traffic…

past spirit houses…  (These are shrines to the protective spirit of a building or home which are generally placed in a very obvious corner of a home or property often selected in consultation with a Brahmin priest.  The shrines are taken very seriously and are intended as homes for spirits that might cause a household trouble if they are not appeased.  Offerings are left at the shrine to please the spirits.)

and across a very convenient bridge over even more traffic.

I ducked into my favorite 24-hour supermarket, Foodland just to make sure that they were still well stocked with expat essentials:

and to make sure Tom Cruise was doing OK

Good luck trying to get this kind of service at your local supermarket:)

As I followed my phone GPS I passed through a dense shopping district.  Bangkok consumerism is a study in contrasts.  There’s absolutely everything. You have this kind of shopping…

next to this kind of shopping

And next to this sizzling amazingness…

you have Auntie Anne’s

and hybrids that I have not yet ventured into testing…

But enough with the mall shopping.  As I got closer to my destination I caught a glimpse of the gorgeous Thai teak house that is the Chao Phraya Bodindecha (Sing Singhaseni) Museum on the campus of the Bodindecha School, a high school with a student population of 5000 in the Wang Thonglang area of Bangkok.

My Bangkok-based friends probably know what happened next based on the place names.  I arrived at the address for “Ikea cafe” and there wasn’t an IKEA anywhere to be seen.  I stopped some passersby.  They assured me that IKEA was nowhere close to where I thought it was.  I was so mad.

I walked around the area where the map said it was.  And sure enough, “Ikea cafe” was real.  Or rather, it had been real.  It was now closed.  But there’s some amazing car detailing work done right next to its former location.  And that’s where this photo essay ends.  I’ve had better days.

No IKEA but Midnight Car Wash was in full swing...

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Bjorn Karlman

Bangkok, Thailand


 

Pride cometh before the fall – ignore my last post

Sick as a dog... like the blanket?:)

Some of you saw this coming: Swiftly on the heels of our most dramatic culinary adventure last week – eating raw durian (a fruit) and sticky rice – I was hit like a sledgehammer with the most violent food poisoning I’ve had since college. I mean it was brutal, out-of-both-ends stuff requiring Tarzan-like leaps out of bed to the facilities.

Oh, the irony

Even in my miserable state the irony of it all was too funny. In my last post I had confidently declared Thai street food fair game and now here I was, the ever-present occupant of my bathroom.

One thing was for sure: there was plenty of time to think. Plenty of time to analyze what had happened. Was I wrong to have taken the risk of eating Bangkok street food? Should I swear it all off?

A lesson

As much as my stomach was telling me never to eat Thai street food again, my brain knew better. This was a lesson in restraint and commonsense (the gooey fruit had been festering in a lukewarm milky substance for hours without refrigeration and I really should have known better than to think I could handle it). It was not grounds for a drastic retreat to peanut butter sandwiches for the balance of my stay in Bangkok.

My default MO is one of at least slight overconfidence. Often it pays off – I attempt challenges, assuming things will work out and then they often do. But occasionally you just end up loosening your bowels.

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Bjorn Karlman

Bangkok, Thailand


How to Eat Thai Street Food

OK, yes (as I admitted a couple posts ago) we are eating food from the Bangkok street stalls. And we haven’t gotten sick yet. The food is unbelievably delicious. But there are a few things to remember before you head to your first food stall:

Be brave!
Yes, it takes some courage to start eating food cooked by the side of the road in a foreign country. But this is one experience you need to have. I have simply never had such good, inexpensive food. You can get a great meal of Thai street food for $1.50. So be brave, walk up to the food stall serving the food you are most dying to eat, point at what you want and you will be well on your way to enjoying a genuine, Thai experience.

 

Eat cooked food
To ensure a decent level of hygiene, only eat food that has been cooked in front of you. The heat will kill the bugs. Steer clear of raw fruit or veggies (at least for the first few days while your stomach adjusts) as they may be washed in water that has not been purified. The locals can handle it but be careful here.

Living life dangerously! We are bad examples. We had raw fruit smoothies within our first week in Thailand... not generally a great idea but an expat friend talked us into it:)

Try new stuff
There is amazing range so don’t be afraid to branch out. We have been experimenting a lot with different dishes. The first night it was pastries, an omelet, spicy chicken, basil, rice and a fried egg. Since then it’s been a bit of a free for all. Curries, soups, stews and an embarrassing array of desserts. There is endless variety so there is no excuse not to indulge your inner foodie.

I'd like.... everything.

Skip Monday
A lot of Thai street food stalls close on Monday so you may want to stay indoors for your meals as the work week starts… Eat at the mall instead. In fact, a lot of the popular street stalls have their own branches in Bangkok malls (which stay open.). I’ll dedicate an upcoming post to the malls here but let me just say right now that they are so large they really should issue customers GPS devices.

The water issue
To avoid spending all night on the throne, stay away from tap water in Bangkok. It is not fit for drinking. However, restaurants that serve water generally serve purified water so you are typically OK having some.

To drink or to suffer curry burn... that is the dillemma.

Go with the crowd
There is safety in numbers when it comes to Thai street food. Hit up the busy stalls. They are busy for a reason and can be trusted more than the ones that get less traffic. This is one time it is absolutely appropriate to bow to peer pressure.

Have you had street food in Thailand? What did I miss? Feel free to add to the list in the comment section.

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Bjorn Karlman

Bangkok, Thailand


With a little help from my friends – Bangkok with the hookups

blast from the past... my friends from the good old days in the Philippines

The mist of confusion lifts when you make friends in a new city. Everything becomes easier.

Lucky

We headed to an English-speaking church in Bangkok this weekend hoping to meet as many people as possible.  Because we had taken the wrong route to the church we got there super late. So instead of actually going to church we started talking to those outside.

We asked all the questions that the language barrier had kept us from asking earlier in the week:

“Are there any good apartments around here?”
“What’s the best way to navigate Bangkok?”
“What are some cool charities that we could volunteer for?”

Luckily they had lots of answers and ideas. We started exchanging numbers with people and jotting down suggestions.

Blast from the past

And then it got even better. “Hi Bjorn!” I looked up and in front of me were some childhood friends that I had grown up with in Philippines.  One of them worked in Bangkok and this weekend the whole family was visiting from the Philippines.  I couldn’t believe it! The relief at seeing familiar faces was immense. We were automatically invited for lunch and then a potluck for dinner.

Want a job?

By the end of the day we had two work opportunities and some info on an NGO (non-governmental organization) for which we could volunteer. Both work opportunities required fluent English – one was for office work for an international company, the next for English language teaching in one of the leading Bangkok universities.  The breakthroughs were mind blowing.

just looking at this Saturday night potluck pic makes me hungry again....

Bottom Line: the 80/20 Principle

This experience really drove home what is commonly called the 80/20 principle.  Here’s how lifestyle design blogger and bestselling author, Tim Ferriss puts it:  “80% of the outputs result from 20% of the inputs,” or, “80% of the results come from 20% of the effort and time.”  This has definitely been true of our time in Bangkok so far.  All our time spent reading and hunting for info did not produce anything near the results of a handful of conversations with the right people.

Nowhere was this more true than with our Bangkok apartment rental efforts:

We had spent hours online, pouring over Bangkok apartment listings. We had painstakingly narrowed down our search to the options that fit our budget. We spent a lot of time looking up locations on Bangkok Maps. In all the time we had spent so far we hadn’t even gotten to calling any of the landlords up (I was dreading doing so because I was anticipating a mountain of language barrier problems.).

One conversation on Saturday made all the difference. “I’ve got a great, cheap apartment that I think could work,” said the husband of one of my childhood friends. He then hooked us up with one of his friends that negotiated an amazing deal.

It was humbling to realize that this one conversation had produced far better results than our hours spent wading through online listings. The Bangkok apartment our friend found us cost $130/month (less than half of what we had budgeted). It was in a safe area and right next door to a friend.

Do-gooding

Our next major priority is finding some nonprofits to work for. We will be pooling the suggestions we get as well as visiting a few different organizations. We will be giving all recommendations submitted on this blog special preference so please submit your ideas in the comment section.

Please leave a comment with your suggestions. Know of a good Bangkok-based orphanage? An after school program? A program working to prevent underage human trafficking? We don’t need pay. Just an interesting project. Have a think. Maybe you can help us….

Looking forward to hearing from you…

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Bjorn Karlman

Bangkok, Thailand


We have quit our jobs to travel the world!!

 

We’ve never done anything this huge: My wife Jammie and I have turned in our resignation letters, quit our jobs to travel the world, write and do service projects for 12 months. We have picked four major world cities – Bangkok, Buenos Aires, Berlin and Mumbai – and we are going to spend three months in each. We are ridiculously excited.

Why are we doing this?
Years ago we started planning for this kind of a move. We had always wanted to live and work internationally, to get involved with international humanitarian nonprofits. We did not want to be stuck in one town or country working office jobs for the rest of our lives. We had always wanted to free up our location and really live the tag line for CultureMutt: savvy, global do-gooding.

Why now?
This huge step was easy to put off. We had already put it off twice. Twice we had told ourselves that we were going to take the bold leap to travel and work oversees. Twice we backed out.

It took a dramatic, late-night conversation with one of my closest friends to finally decide to activate the plans we kept postponing for a “better”, “more convenient” time.

“You are young and you have so much to offer!” my friend, shouted in my ear over the din of a rowdy San Francisco lounge. “Why are you playing it safe as if you were middle-aged with a mortgage and kids?! You are selling out! This is the time to go for your dreams and take some risks. If you fail you can rebuild but if you succeed you will be living the dream. Do it!!”. That conversation was the final push I needed. Within days we decided to finally act on our plans and go for our dreams 100%.

How can we afford this?
How are we paying for 12 months of international travel and living without jobs? For starters, we picked very affordable cities that we had either lived in, visited or at the very least, researched. Then we put aside enough of our savings to cover the basics of tickets, rent, food, etc. For any additional expenses we will make money the way both of us have in the past: through freelance writing, consulting and teaching. The beauty of making money using these methods is obviously that you can use them to make money anywhere in the world.

Why Bangkok, Buenos Aires, Berlin and Mumbai?

Bangkok  – We both love Southeast Asia. And there is no Southeast Asian capital with quite the same dynamic mix as Bangkok. The food is amazing, the country is beautiful and we already have a non profit that works to prevent sex trafficking that we are going to be volunteering for in Thailand.

Buenos Aires – I spent four amazing months studying Spanish in Buenos Aires in 2005. Weeks before leaving I was already missing this awesomely stylish city. The tango dancers in the streets, the amazing artistic scene and the roar from the “futbol” stadiums are unbeatable. Also, on the volunteering front, I have friends in Argentina that are well-connected to some education and healthcare nonprofits for which we would love to work.

Berlin – The buzz about Berlin as a European youth culture and arts capital is well-deserved and growing. Not only do we want to sample this but we want to establish relationships with some of Berlin’s emerging, young entrepreneurs. Young creative minds have descended upon Berlin in droves in recent years. This a city on the move and we want in.

Mumbai – Mumbai is India’s biggest, baddest city. It is also home to Bollywood, the second largest film industry in the world. Put simply, we want connections within this industry. They could be very helpful in our quest for savvy, global do-gooding. So far we have some friends who have worked in Bollywood. We aim to make more of them. We might even land a cameo:)

When does this all start?
After Christmas in England with my family, we fly to Bangkok in the first week of January, 2013. There starts our series of four, 3-month world city relocations. This is happening!

There – now you know. Wish us luck and if you have world travel tips for our gap year or any specific advice on navigating our four world cities, leave them in the comment section.

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Bjorn Karlman

Should You Give to Beggars?

The most recent run-in I’ve had with someone begging was last week when I gave a man a dollar outside CVS in my current hometown of Chico, CA.  He turned around and said, “to be honest, if I scrape together enough tonight, I’ll go get myself a beer.”  I regretted my donation.

Beer and Begging

I first started seeing signs about beer and begging in downtown LA several years ago.  “Broke and Need Beer”, or something to that effect is what one guy’s sign said at his regular station just off Wilshire Boulevard.  I remember thinking it clever and worthy of some spare change but then as I started to see the line used in other parts of California and I got over my amusement and grew indifferent to the signs.  Was my indifference wrong?  A lack of compassion?

Agonizing Stories

Begging takes on different forms in different parts of the world of course.  I remember being horrified as a disabled man begged on the streets of Bangkok and was forced to pull himself along on his chest, using his hands to move forward.  I’ve seen similar situations in other parts of Asia where you cannot help but pity those that beg because they are blind, mute or suffering from some other very obvious physical calamity.  What is the compassionate thing to do?

Children

It gets even worse when children are involved.   From asylum seekers in the UK, carrying babies and begging in London’s Leicester Square to the children that would crowd around me even in richer areas of the Peruvian capital Lima, children are often used with great success to prey on the good intentions of the passerby.  I remember a friend of mine who felt like he needed to give and took a whole flock of kids out to eat in Buenos Aires.  I felt bad for him first.  I had grown used to almost ignoring requests for money.  But then I second guessed myself.  Was my cynicism wrong?  What if they didn’t have shady overseers that they had to hand all of the money to at the end of the day?  What if their stories were true?   I brushed my questions off as guilt-induced naïveté.

No Answers?

I don’t feel like I have ever gotten a satisfactory answer to the question of whether or not to give to beggars or the homeless.  I have heard a lot of the quick commonsense reactions – “give to specific charities instead”, “buy them food”, “tell them to get a job”, “show them how to get to a shelter”.  Depending on the situation, each of these common reactions are helpful to an extent.  But none of them make me feel much better.  They may lift the guilt I feel about walking by but they don’t fundamentally help.

A Little Help from Government?

Is the answer legislation?  Some of the left-leaning friends I used to hang out with in college were sure this was the answer.  A bunch of us worked in a very economically depressed town in southwest Michigan called Benton Harbor.  A lot of us felt that, as nice as it was that we were out there tutoring, mentoring and delivering food, nothing would change until there was systemic change in the form of government programs and better educational opportunities.  On some level I still think this is true but the abuse of public welfare that was also evident as we worked with family members that refused to even look for work made me cautious of looking too confidently to government spending for answers.

What do you think?

As much as I write CultureMutt to advance what I call “savvy, global do-gooding”, I don’t like pat answers to complex problems so I am simply going to admit my deep confusion at how to best help when I encounter homelessness and begging.  I have given at times and I have not given far more often.  I have helped out a half-way home.  I have talked to homeless people on the street and at shelters to try to understand their stories.  I’ve tried to read up on what to do.  I’ve talked to those “in the know”.

I don’t know that I am any closer to solutions.  What are your thoughts?  What do you do when you are approached for money?  Please leave your ideas in the comment section

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Bjorn Karlman

Scam-Proof – How to Avoid Being Duped While Traveling

China Part 2a from Glenn McElhose on Vimeo.

I came across the above video on the blog of productivity guru and author of “The Four-Hour Workweek”, Tim Ferris. Tim who is extremely well-traveled, was recently in China on a trip with Kevin Rose (internet entrepreneur and co-founder of Digg among other things) and another friend, Glenn McElhose. Kevin and Glenn got completely scammed by two women pretending to be local art students that led the pair through an elaborate set of “cultural” experiences – excessive purchases of supposedly local student art, over-priced tea drinking, etc.. I won’t spoil the video because it is well worth the 20 minutes for anyone planning a trip abroad (or anyone that is curious about how scam artists do their thing).

The video was especially interesting to me because it brought back a slew of memories of contact with scam artists of various guises. Take the over-persistent, uber-friendly fast talker who offered illegal climbing tours of the pyramids near Cairo. There was also the Nigerian taxi cab driver who attempted to cram a host of other passengers in on our dollar. Even more disturbingly, there were the phony Manila police officers that flashed fake badges, kidnapped my friend’s father and only let him loose after a substantial monetary exchange…

Nobody enjoys being the victim of a scam artist, so what can be done to prevent this absolute damper on your vacation? The first step is as readily obvious as it is ignored: Do your homework. Invest in a pocket travel guide on your destination.  It is less than $20 and is worth every penny in the value that they add to your experience. You’ll know what to go see and what to avoid. If you prefer to go paperless, try virtualtourist.com (recommended by Tim Ferriss), a superb, free, online resource, written by actual travelers, constantly updated and containing everything from detailed listings of city attractions to information on scams – even the specific scam that Tim Ferris’s friends fell for.

A second step that I have found useful: If at all possible, find a reliable local guide that can give you the basics on where to go, what to see and what to ignore. Who can you trust? Well, definitely not the eager cab driver you met at the station who has an uncle with the cheapest Muay Thai tickets in Bangkok. I stick to: 1) Locals recommended by friends at home. 2) Official hotel/hostel staff. 3) Religious officials (local clergy, missionaries, etc.). 4) Official bureaus of tourism. Remember: DO NOT listen to someone just because they are friendly, persistent or somehow seem to have all the right things to say – scammers are professionals and have gone through the trial and error process that has refined their show; they are SUPPOSED to be convincing.

Third, have a researched itinerary. Know what you want to see on any given day and have a clear, solidly researched plan for:

  • What things cost (DO NOT accept the price that vendors give you without first researching the approximate pricing for what you want.)
  • Approximately how long the journey should take (cab drivers will happily take you on elaborately circuitous routes IN TRAFFIC, simply to run up the tab.)
  • What to do in an emergency – make sure everyone has a local phone card and the number of the hotel and your embassy.

With a post like this you always run the risk of turning people off traveling altogether. That is absolutely not my intention. With some street smarts, travel can be one of the most enlightening experiences in life: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain

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Bjorn Karlman