January 30, 2007

Long trip

The last day Mike and I went to the Chiang Mai night safari, a zoo that has tram tours at night of animals in their natural habitats. During the day it’s a self-guided walking tour through a pretty nice little zoo. We were the only ones there and had a leisurely stroll past monkeys, big cats, and capybaras. Of course we did the final cocktail hour and repeated the hotel restaurant, paying for it this time. Once again the Indian food was the star of the show.

In the morning Mike came by for breakfast and we said our goodbyes as the hotel’s Mercedes gave me a complimentary trip to the airport. I enjoyed the wifi in the Royal Silk lounge before my business-class flight to Bangkok, which cost less than drinks with Kitty, and in an hour I was at the new airport meeting another Mercedes to take me to the Westin Sukhumvit, which I had booked using Starpoints for the night. The Mercedes was a bad value, costing 2100 baht when a perfectly good Toyota available through AOT in baggage claim was only 900 baht.

At the Westin they treated me like a king because of my Platinum status, whisking me up to the executive lounge to check me in. They had a fabulous cocktail-hour spread and free wifi in the lounge so I camped out and played a little poker while I chowed down on chicken tikka and sipped Cabernet. I wanted to try out the new subway so I took a ride to Rachadaphisek to check out the entertainment district there with its super-high-end massage parlors. Unfortunately it wasn’t at the Rachidaphisek stop on the train – pretty much nothing was there. I asked a taxi driver and he said they were all closed already so I took the train back. Bangkok is full of incredibly expensive stuff that I can never figure out how anyone can afford. This subway was absolutely world class, with high-tech RFID tokens, sliding glass doors, and trains running smooth as silk.

In the morning I took the 900-baht Toyota (they insisted on my choosing between a Toyota and a Nissan) to the new airport and discovered my Cathay Pacific flight was delayed and they had put me on a Thai Airways flight so I wouldn’t miss my connection. The Thai flight actually had a first-class cabin and I tried to talk them into putting me there since I had a first-class ticket but it was not possible. Upstairs in the business-class cabin of the 747 was just fine for the short flight. It was all for naught anyway because when I got to Bangkok my onward flight was also delayed. I never minded hanging out in The Wing, though, and munched some sushi and sipped Champagne while I waited.

Finally I got on the 747 to LAX. First class was half full and I had two orders of caviar and a bowl of soup. The food on Cathay is so good I don’t feel the need to eat seven courses like most airlines serve you in first class. I just pick and choose what I want and enjoy it. Everyone in F slept most of the 11.5-hour flight, including me. I awoke two hours before landing, had two more orders of caviar and black coffee, and prepared to deal with missing my onward connection on US Airways, I wasn’t too worried since the worst possible case was having to buy a new $99 ticket on one of the 14 airlines that flew between LAX and LAS every 20 minutes or so.

We landed a bit over an hour late and I breezed through customs. I walked in the cool Southern California air to terminal one, seamlessly got put on the next flight to Vegas, and even scored a last-minute upgrade. I arrived at Caesars Palace almost exactly 24 hours after I had woken up in Bangkok.

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January 29, 2007

“A geek girl who came to Chiang Mai…”

She wasn’t an uberbabe. Oh, she was hot all right. But she was a bad girl. She liked to break the rules.

My brother Mike wasn’t feeling well so he went home to get some rest while I hit the cigar store and walked around the Night Bazaar smoking a Romeo y Julieta. I was on a small street with beer bars when a very cute American girl came up to me and asked if I knew where she could get a cigar. She had long strawberry blonde hair and wore a white peasant skirt and a black tank top with a few beads of sweat on her bare shoulders. “I’ll take you,” I said.

She told me her name was Kitty and she was from California. She had come to Thailand, she said, to try to cure her addictions to smoking, drinking, and sex.

"How old are you?" I asked. "Twenty-three," she said. “Well,” I said, “you’ve definitely come to the right place.” The cigar store didn’t have her brand so she asked if I knew anyplace else. I said my hotel had a cigar bar. She didn’t say anything so I said, “Follow me.”

At the hotel the lobby was full of uniformed guards and a long red carpet was laid out to the porte-cochere. I told Kitty the guards were probably there in preparation for the princess checking in. She was very excited about the princess and wanted to see her so even though the cigar bar didn’t have her brand, she ordered a pack of cigarettes and a glass of Champagne and tipped the bartender 100 baht to tell her when the princess arrived. I wanted a clear head to remember this story. I just drank water.

Kitty, she told me, was working as a computer technician in Silicon Valley until they caught her and a coworker naked in the network operation center. After that, she said, she decided she liked having sex with strangers so much she might as well get paid for it so she hung out a shingle on the Internet and had been whoring for about a year. And here I thought if you wanted to find skanky geek girls you had to go to Reno. “I was porting a Unix app to a milspec-secure system,” Kitty said. I told her I used to be a computer programmer. “What language did you program in?” I told her C. “Good,” she said. “If you had said Java I would have no respect for you. Although I barely qualified for Mensa myself.”

At this point I was frantically making mental notes. I didn’t want to forget anything. I was making up limericks in my head and grinning uncontrollably, which she probably misconstrued:

A geek girl who came to Chiang Mai
Must be nuts to compete with the Thai.
“Well, I like to get laid,”
She said, “and to get paid--
“And you never do know till you try.”

Just then the bartender bowed in: “Scuse me! Princess coming!” Kitty leapt up and I followed her to the railing where we saw several people enter the hotel and turn toward the elevators. She wanted a better look so we ran down the stairs but by the time we got there they were rolling up the red carpet. There were several other farangs loitering about the lobby princess-watching so Kitty chatted them up and verified she was part of that initial group. She asked one of the hotel staff, who said the princess had arrived but had gone to the fitness center. “She’s in her 50s, right?” Kitty said. “I bet she’s had a lot of work done.” Then she realized you can get locked in a dungeon for speaking ill of the royal family, and quickly added, “I mean she works out a lot, right? In the fitness center.” I sidled away from her until I was sure the soldiers showed no interest.

We went back to the bar and she chain-smoked L&Ms while downing three glasses of Champagne I figured I was going to get stuck for, but it was worth the story. “Are you hungry?” she asked, and ordered several tapas. Then she noticed I wasn’t drinking alcohol and said I was being ungentlemanly so I ordered a glass of Bordeaux. Finally the bar closed. I signed the bill and watched as they put the bottles away, one by one. She showed no signs of leaving. “Well,” I said, “it looks like they’re closing the bar down.” She didn’t move.

“I was drinking and smoking with a guy three days ago,” she said. “But I was still being celibate.”

“How’s that working for you?” I said.

“I haven’t decided,” she said. “But it was what I wanted three days ago. I’m not sure what I want today.”

“Why did you come to Thailand?” I asked.

“I was too into the orgy scene in LA and it was getting hairy,” she said. “And California is tough when you don’t drive. I can’t get a driver’s license. I have blackouts.” I stared. “But I’d love to take flying lessons.” She looked at me with big brown eyes. “Maybe you could help me out with flying lessons.”

“How can you fly if you have blackouts?” I asked.

“Oh, I’d always have an instructor with me,” she said. One of the bartenders had left. The other, a Thai girl about Kitty’s age, stood waiting. “I lost my virginity when I was 13,” Kitty said. “A friend of my brother’s gave me a back rub while we were watching TV. He asked me if I wanted to try having sex. I said OK.”

“How old was he?” I asked.

“Twenty. I liked it so much he couldn’t believe it was my first time.”

“Did the guy go to prison?” I asked.

“Oh no,” she said. “I didn’t turn him in. I could have, but I didn’t want to.” She finished her Champagne and then held the empty glass out in the direction of my remaining Bordeaux. I poured half of what I had left into her glass. I signed the bill for 4400 baht ($125). We drained the last of the wine. “I really get off on guys who have moral issues with me,” she said. “It was a lot easier to find them when I was underage.” She looked down at her empty glass. “Is there somewhere else we can keep drinking?”

Oh, dear reader. I want you to know that it is only for your sake – the sake of the story -- that I swallowed hard and suggested we go back to my room to partake of my complimentary minibar, sadly underutilized except for a few glasses of Ballantine 12 year Scotch by my brother. Without a word, she rose and followed me.

Kitty headed right for the outdoor daybed and lit up an L&M. “Do you have a laptop?” she asked? “I’ll show you some pictures.” Now this was 21st-Century geek girl ho marketing. She showed me some legit modeling she had done and then a tasteful nude spread. The idea of this pretty Jewish California girl plying her trade in Chiang Mai was jaw-droppingly fascinating to me. She came from a place where men gladly pay $500 for an hour of her time to a land where guys pay $30 to mate with a girl who wouldn’t give them a dirty look in the USA.

“My feet are cold,” she said. “Do you have an extra pair of socks?” I went inside, taking my laptop with me so the Mensa nymphomaniac couldn’t surreptitiously install a Trojan on it while I wasn’t looking, and returned with a pair of black Jhane Barnes dress socks. I expected never to see them again. Maybe she collected men’s socks like some guys collect women’s panties. Maybe she nailed them up on her wall.

Kitty put on the socks. “Thank you,” she said. “That’s very gentlemanly of you.” She sipped Semillon Blanc. I lit her second-to-last L&M for her and gazed out over the pool, the reflecting lights, and the Ping river. I refilled her glass. She opened her purse and took out a roll-on of citronella mosquito repellent, applying it to herself and then offering it to me. “No thanks,” I said, “I’m taken care of.” She nodded and was quiet awhile. I lit her last L&M for her.

“I really like anal sex,” she said. “Do you?”

Somehow I managed to get her down to the porte-cochere. I planned to call a taxi for her but she said she wanted a tuk-tuk instead, essentially a motorized tricycle with a back seat and canopy. The doorman was aghast but she insisted. “That way I can smoke in the back,” she said. She climbed into the tuk-tuk, still wearing my Jhane Barnes black socks, and looked back hopefully at me as the driver pulled out. I waved at her to stop but the driver pulled away. She kept looking and I waved again. She told the driver to come back. I sprinted down the driveway.

“How much is the fare?” I asked. 300 baht. I pulled it out and gave it to her. It was worth $8.

“That’s very gentlemanly of you,” said Kitty as the tuk-tuk pulled away, “very gentlemanly.” Her wide eyes looked back at me till she was out of sight.

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January 27, 2007

Rocky road

Tapas in the bar at Chedi came with the package so we segued from cocktails in the club lounge to a complimentary bottle of house wine with a goat cheese salad and some local sausages. The upstairs bar was stunning, all done in dark wood with stone wall carvings dribbling water. The use of light and water in the Chedi would impress Steve Wynn. The most important things to me in a hotel are sleep comfort and Internet access so when I find myself repeatedly noticing the serene beauty of a place it’s remarkable.

We visited a local tourist attraction, a hot springs where people liked to bathe and cook eggs. Mike and I hit the main pool and soaked awhile. Amazingly, even Thailand has non-smoking laws and this place had signs saying you couldn’t even smoke outside! We had dinner at an uncrowded local Thai restaurant on the outskirts of town. We were the only farangs there.

The next day Mike asked if I’d like to drive up into the mountains and I said sure! We took a pleasant winding road up Doi Suthep past the Phuping Palace and a commercial hill tribe. Most people were turning around but Mike followed a dirt road to a place where Chiang Mai university was doing research into coffee growing. “You can have a cup of coffee and a delicious cookie,” Mike said. As a rule I don’t eat dessert but I had coffee and looked out over the field where they were growing it.

We continued down the road and the terrain got more and more rugged. We were bouncing around in all directions as the truck managed the rutted unimproved trail. The pick-up had no trouble with it but we did. Mike had to pull over every few minutes due to motion sickness and I was feeling a little queasy myself. It seemed like it took forever to get down but finally we found asphalt. “I have a new respect for paved roads,” I told Mike as we pulled out by a large lake with fishing and swimming areas. “Let’s take this drive again, say, when we’re fleeing an imminent nuclear explosion and this is the only road out of town.” We made it back to the Chedi and relaxed till cocktail hour. I couldn’t think of a much nicer place to come home to.

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January 26, 2007

Flower show

Breakfast at the Chedi, for suite guests, was in the club lounge. There were never more than two other tables of guests and often we were the only ones there. They had a buffet with a gourmet selection of cold items and then a menu for ordering hot ones. They brought a carafe of French press coffee and two helpings of Eggs Benedict, which we consumed leisurely as the morning sun warmed the river air.

After breakfast we decided to visit the Royal Flower Show at the new fairgrounds. This was the reason for the unusual tourist surge in Chiang Mai. Mike drove the turbo pickup to the show, which had a huge parking lot but wasn’t letting anyone but public transportation park in it. We had to find a private lot and take a shuttle. Once at the show, we strolled around the grounds, hitting the Royal Pavilion first. Mike was interested in learning about orchids to decorate his renovated condo, but there wasn’t much learning to be done. Many countries had set up showcase exhibits but there really was nothing terribly exciting except a big pair of wooden shoes the Dutch had set up as a photo op. We complied. The most interesting thing to me was the number of Thais carrying parasols. Apparently they prefer them to sunblock.

There were plenty of orchids everywhere and Mike snapped some pictures to take home as decorating ideas.

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January 24, 2007

Hotel problem solved

Although January was certainly high season in Chiang Mai, the idea of every hotel in town being booked was foreign to both Mike and me. We walked around town, asking at all the nice hotels if they had a room for the next five nights. The answer was always the same: “Sorry sirrrrr…fully booked!” Finally we went over to the Chedi hotel, a new, ultra-high-end joint on the bank of the Ping river with availability showing on the Internet starting at the Thai-diculous rate of $333/night. Chedi is a Singapore-based chain with a dozen locations around Asia, two in Thailand (the other is in Phuket).

The place was spectacular. It was built in open style on two to four levels. Everything was teak, water, and candles. There was a world-class spa and fitness center with TechnoGym equipment, same as Caesars Palace. The club lounge, bars, and restaurant all had indoor and outdoor seating and spaciously separated tables. A small lap pool with chaise longues overlooked the Ping. I was home.

We had them show us a room, which was small but beautiful, and then a Jacuzzi suite, which was nicer than most of the places I stay in Vegas. We took a half-hour of the bellman’s time to tour the place and ultimately I decided to get a suite for five nights on a promotional package that included more extras than I’d ever seen: free full breakfast daily, one free dinner for two including house wine, free cocktails and canapés every night, tapas at the bar one night, free use of minibar restocked daily, in-room espresso maker, and two comps that are tough to get even in Vegas: free Internet and free laundry. I asked for a view room on the top floor but the entire fourth floor was reserved for the princess and her entourage, checking in later in the week, so I settled for the third floor.

The hotel problem solved, Mike drove me in his turbo Toyota pickup to one of our favorite restaurants in Chiang Mai, the Galae. This outdoor thai restaurant, at the base of a mountain just above a lake, specializes in seafood and has a table permanently reserved for the king. They had a good wine list for a Thai restaurant and I ordered an inexpensive Australian Shiraz to toast Maria Sharapova.

The next day at 2 p.m. I moved into the suite at the Chedi and headed for the gym to work out before cocktail hour. I was the only one in the gym and a Thai attendant stood by, I guess ready to catch me if I fell off the elliptical machine. I relaxed in the suite, tried out the shower, which had both rain bath and European shower heads, and met Mike in the club lounge for cocktail hour. Three attendants were there to wait on one or two tables. They brought us some nice canapés and offered us a choice of drinks, including a dozen wines by the bottomless glass. I drank the Bordeaux all week while Mike settled on the Shiraz.

We took our comped dinner the first night and it was incredible. The menu was Thai, Indian, and European, but at the suggestion of the German intern who was working there in a supervisory role, I had a fantastic Indian dish, chicken Tika. Mike and I agreed this had to be one of the best meals we’d had in Thailand. We sat out by the river, armed with mosquito repellent placed on every table, and listened to a Thai piano player who had quite a bit more skill, and better repertoire, than the one at the Sheraton. I asked when they were opening a Chedi in Vegas.

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January 23, 2007

Sexy Poom Pui

In the morning I took the elevator down to the lobby to meet Mike and discovered the place packed full of checking-out guests. A Thai pianist was playing Carpenters songs badly. Mike came in and we breakfasted on the included buffet, same as I remember it from five years ago.

The weather was perfect throughout my visit. Thailand has three seasons: hot, rainy, and cold, and the cold season is the only reasonable time to come. In Chiang Mai, in the north of Thailand, evenings actually got a bit cool sometimes and it was rarely too hot during the day. Mike played the five-star tour guide, taking me to an out-of-the-way Issan restaurant for dinner. At my request we tried the local fish – chon and thap tim -- which were wonderful. Thailand is full of inexplicable cross-cultural elements and when I asked Mike why this restaurant had sketches of American Indians mounted on pillars, or why there was a set of deer antlers hanging over the kitchen, he just smiled.

We went to buy me a cheap cell phone to use in Thailand and ended up in a mall that had at least 20 cell-phone stores, some selling new phones and some used. I got a $50 Nokia and 250 baht worth of service which, at one baht per call during the daytime under their promotion, would last well beyond the week. In most countries other than the US, incoming calls are free, so I had no worries about running out of minutes.

Chiang Mai is more of a livable city than a destination for foreign tourists but like Bangkok and Phuket it has lots of bars. The gogo bars are much like men’s clubs in America except the girls don’t really dance and they don’t even go topless; they just sway around in bikinis or underwear. There are no lap dances and no rip-off VIP room. Of course 100% of them are hookers whereas in America it’s closer to 50%. In addition to gogo bars, the streets are lined with beer bars, much more casual venues but still with hookers. One of them was called “Sexy Poom Pui” (pot belly), clearly designed to attract a certain class of clientele. Mike took me on a tour but after five trips to Thailand these all blended together in a chorus of “hello! how you?”

Mike took me back to the Sheraton but there was a partial power failure and they weren’t letting anyone up the elevators. After 15 minutes or so the problem cleared up and I ascended the tower. They still had the sign pictorially prohibiting the smelly durian fruit in the elevator. Mike’s condo was being renovated so we decided to stay in Chiang Mai the entire visit. Astonishingly, though, almost all the hotels were fully booked, including the Sheraton. We’d have to address this situation tomorrow.

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January 20, 2007

One more helping

I had finally learned to order “long black” when I wanted coffee in Australia but my short visit to Melbourne was already over, memories of barramundi floating dreamily through my semi-conscious mind as an early-morning taxi took me to the airport. I was looking forward to this next segment in first class on Cathay Pacific. It was a daytime flight so I doubted I’d be using the flat-bed feature but from past experience I knew I was going to have a good time. I was in fact the only passenger in F on this flight. I started with a light breakfast and then scanned the movie selection. I figured I could get in four movies on the flight, which I did. Woody Allen’s Scoop, starring uberbabe Scarlett Johansson, added to his unending oeuvre of funny little movies, while The Illusionist proved Paul Giamatti can do more than complain about bad wine.

As the flight wore on I decided what they really needed in these first-class cabins were gyms. You’ve got nothing to do on these flights and it would be a great time to work out. I didn’t see one, though, so instead I ordered dinner. I looked over the menu: filet, lamb – barramundi! I read no further and ordered one more helping of my new favorite fish. It was wonderful. I paired it with a nice Brunello di Montalcino. At the conclusion to the flight the attendants let on that they recognized me as a poker player and had me all sign playing cards for them.

I had deliberately left some extra time for my connection in Hong Kong because the first-class lounge there, The Wing, is the best in the world. You get a private cabana with shower, bath, and babbling brook. I caught up on the Internet and took a hot lazy cool shower after. The next leg, to Bangkok, was a short two-hour flight on Cathay. It was a two-cabin plane so I suffered through business class. Even on this short flight they served a delicious hot sea bass. No barramundi though.

It was my first time in Bangkok’s new airport. I wanted to see if I could transfer to Chiang Mai without clearing customs and to my pleasant surprise it was possible, although it was a very long walk to the domestic departures. I waited in one of the many Royal Silk lounges, got online, and then took the one-hour final leg of today’s long, long journey. My brother Mike was waiting for me at the Chiang Mai airport and he drove me to the Sheraton (formerly the Westin, where I have stayed many times), and having been up for 22 hours I simply crashed in the big old suite.

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