December 2, 2007

$1USD=33.56 Baht

Bangkok-Tour with Tong

I'm up at 4AM and so is Mom. We are scheduled to be picked up by Tong at 6:30 AM for a full day so we get ready and have plenty of time to go downstairs. The laptops connect just fine to the hotel WIFI in the lobby, but I still cannot upload my website.

We are in the lobby waiting at 6:15, and there she is. When she figures out it is us, she is all smiles and laughing. She asks if we want to visit the "Happy Room" before we leave. This is Tong-speak for "bathroom". We decine and are in her car in a moment, where she makes us instant coffee with scalding water from her thermos. After she gets in the car, she puts on a headband with plastic devil's horns powered by a small battery. They can light up if she chooses. At that point, I realize she's crazy (in a good way) and that we are in for a wild ride.

We are off, Tong is talking a mile a minute and zipping through the early morning Bangkok streets. She is explaining to us about Buddhism, making merit, and what to do when we reach our first stop, a local temple where the Monks go to receive alms. She triple parks her car in front of the temple vendors and we get out.

Monks are not allowed to buy food or kill animals for food. They rely solely on what is given to them every morning. Depending on which Buddhist sect the belong to, they eat only once a day in the morning, or twice a day. Women are not allowed to touch monks or hand them items directly, but we can make offerings by putting items into their bowl and receive a blessing from them. Each Monk is accompanied by a volunteer from the temple who carrys a bag into which he puts the offerings. The offerings, food, water, flowers, are then brought back to the temple to be shared by all the monks, the poor school children, and even the temple dogs.

We each buy a plate of food for a monk and Tong goes first, explaining to us what to do, how to put the items in the monk's bowl a specific order, and how to wait to receive the blessing. Then we take our turns. There are no photos of this process because I really didn't feel like it was a "tourist attraction" for us. It felt oddly natural to be part of the process and our alms we accepted with the same graciousness as everyone else.

Soon we are back in the car, racing to our next destination, the floating market. Tong has a plan and we must stick to it to reap the full benefit. Still, we make a couple of stops and the whole time, we are talking about Thai culture, Buddhism and her life.

We pass though a town with a local market where some vendors have set up their wares over the railroad tracks. Yes, on top of the tracks. The train passes by eight times a day and they get a three minute warning to pack it all up and move or be run over by the train. These vendors are so poor they cannot pay for market space, so instead they do this.

Market on Railroad tracks.

Next stop we actually get out of the car at a temple and go inside. The temple is covered with intricate wood carvings and the abbot himself comes inside. His likeness is carved into one of the panels and he jokes that yes, it is him, with fewer wrinkles. There is a large bell in the yard below and when he sees me take a photo of it he tells me I can ring it if I want. It is very loud.

Temple with intricate wood carvings. Abbot.

Feeding the temple dogs.

At a quick stop at a pottery workshop to use the Happy Room, we run into one of the guides Tong recommends when she cannot meet all demand, Noi, who is guiding an Israeli family of 5. We will see them at every stop along the way.


We finally reach the Floating Market where we pay our 400 baht for the boat fee. We get a paddle boat instead of a loud long tail boat and it's just for us. Tong has a few boatmen she uses and trusts and there's one waiting for her. He's a young, smiling guy and soon we are on the water, moving through the crowded canal. We don't have to worry about the vendors because we are there only to eat, not shop and we have Tong who knows exactly who has the best food.

Thus the food parade begins. First, rice with spicy pork, then fried bananas, plain and encrusted with coconut, then a spicy soup with thick green gelatanous noodles.

Next pork satay skewers and chicken wings on a stick. Sliced mango. Iced coffee in a bag. I make sure she and the boatman are eating too as there is no way we can eat all of this. She is paying for the food as we go, and buying more satay sticks. I ask if they are for us and she says no, they are for the dogs. "These are good, but not as good as the ones you already had", she says.

Soon, there are the first dogs, a mangy pair who recognize her voice and follow us along the canal. She tosses them the meat on sticks and they chew it off. At this point we are off the main canal and it is much quieter, yet still there are a few noisy longtail boats. We arrive at another noodle vendor and there is Noi and her group, eating noodle soup. We wait for them to finish, and then Tong orders more noodles, dry, for us. They are fabulous. In fact, everything we've eaten has been absolutely wonderful.

We cruise along and the canals get smaller and smaller and quieter.

Then, suddenly, we are back on the big canal where busloads are beeing shuttled onto boats 10 at a time. I am so thankful we are here with Tong. We hit a boat traffic jam and talk to a Taiwanese film crew in the boat next to us while we wait.



After the floating market we head toward the Tiger temple, stopping at a wood carving factory to use the "happy room". The carvings are incredibly intricate and detailed. Master work with prices to match.


When we leave the wood carving factory, we are pulled over by the Thai Highway Patrol. Tong has no idea why and gets out of the car to talk to the cop. We watch her though the back window, laughing, flirting, tossing her hair. She's doing her best to get out of a ticket and we think she's succeeded until we see him take out his ticket book. More discussion and then suddenly, she's back in the car and we're driving away.

We ask what happened. Apparantly, they were pulling over everyone driving in the right lane, which is reserved for passing only. This is news to her and there were no signs posted to this effect. She says when the officer went to write her a ticket, she asked what her options were. He told her she could go to the station to pay it, pay it by mail, or she could pay him directly, but he "had no receipts". She knew right then he was corrupt.

That's when she brought out her ace; her bother is a General in the Bangkok Police force. She told the officer that he should just issue her the ticket because she would just have her "brother take care of it" for her. He asked who her brother was and she told him. She offered to show her brother's jacket (which was in the car) with the police logo on it, or even to call her brother. The cop did not call her bluff (which wasn't a bluff at all) and let her go with a warning. Apparently, her brother far outranks a lowly highway patrol officer and he did not need the aggravation. Go Tong!

Along the way, we discuss the pros and cons of the Tiger temple. Much has been written online about this place and there are some incredibly passionate people out there with very strong opinions. I wanted to see for myself.

Tong says she used to dislike the place but has since changed her mind. Her opinion is that it is necessary to protect these animals which otherwise might be poached. As with every other place, she knows everyone, from the guards at the gate, to the tiger handlers to the goats and deer which come when they hear her voice. She passes out the fruit she bought at the market to the animals along the way.

We get to the center of the compound where there are several tiger cubs lolling about, playing with each other and their handlers. Yes, they are on chain leashes and I think this is a good thing, especially for the larger ones.

We get to pet and photograph the tiger cubs and at this point it is slightly "zooey" with dozens of people surrounding each cub trying to get a picture. I get the opportunity to feed one a bottle. Later, a 4 year old tiger who is the father of some of the cubs is brought out. He's just been fed and is slightly slow in the heat of the day. The cubs pounce on him, biting and playing and he tolerates it with good humor-to a point. If one irritates him too much, he gives them a nip and holds them down to show who's boss.

After a while all us tourists are headed into a corral type area overlooking the first new tiger enclosure. We are told to stand behind a low gate while the other adult tigers are brought out and led toward the quarry where photographs are to be taken. Tong positions us so we will be first in line. Then, the handlers take the 4 year old daddy tiger and begin to walk with him to the quarry, all of us trailing behind. Everyone gets a turn to walk with the tiger for a few steps while the handlers take pictures with your own camera. As we go, the tiger stops at every tree and lets go his "scent" in a large stream to mark his territory. Hint: make sure you are well away when he goes to do this-I saw one girl get covered! Ick!

I wish I could say I took this photo, but I did not. It was taken by one of the handlers with my mother's camera-we were not allowed to get that close.

Down in the quarry, the tigers, a dozen or so, are positioned in various locations, each with a handler or two. There are two lines; one for taking pictures with the tigers (free) and one for photos with the tiger's head in your lap (1000 baht). We opt not to get the "head in lap" photos. The whole process is very fast. We are led by the hand by a handler, positioned and they take out photo with each tiger. We are not allowed to take our own photos, except from a distance.

After the tiger photos, we walk back out to the center area where one of the "good monks" (according to Tong) is sitting with a tiger cub. This is a "good monk" because the tigers like him, according to Tong, and he clearly loves and respects all the animals. We each get the chance to sit with this baby, pet him, and chat with the Monk (though Tong).

Ooooh, what a belly!

Next, we head to the back to go see Bam Bam the bear. Tong refers to her as her "other daughter" as she has been playing with the bear since she was brought in as a tiny cub who had been abandoned by poachers near the Burma border. It's clear Bam Bam knows Tong, and she's happy to get the cookies, fruit and milk Tong has brought her.

Bam Bam listening to Tong.

The "Good Monk" shows up and lets us into the cage with Bam Bam. She has such a sweet face and is very gentle. After a little while, we can hear some booming and a lot of noise in the distance. It's the construction going on for the other new Tiger enclosures and they are using dynamite. It visibly disturbs Bam Bam who refuses to eat any more and gets agitated to the point of pacing around her cage. She even goes to the far back and into the cage on the other side to get away from the noise. She's upset which makes Tong upset. Finally, we have to leave, but not before Bam Bam has calmed down enough to make Tong comfortable in leaving.

Tong with her Fodor's Pasadena GTG bag.

I have to say, I leave the Tiger Temple feeling conflicted. I think there could be a better way to raise money to support these animals, but I don't know what it is. I'm hoping that once the enclosures are built the tigers will have more space to roam freely. I think if they could somewhat restrict the number of tourists who come in to pet the tigers that would also be a good thing.

Despite some people's opinions, I do not believe the tigers are being drugged or abused in any way. Tong tells us that she brought two US Zoo vets to the Tiger temple recently. They each paid to have the tiger's head in their laps. However, they did this because they wanted to be able to feel the tiger's pulse on their necks. It was their opinion that the tigers were not drugged. I think the temple has the best of intentions for all the animals there and I have no problem with the 300 baht admission fee which goes to feed and house the animals. None of the animals appeared sick or unhealthy.

I found myself most disturbed by the sheer number of tourists and the "tiger head in lap" routine. It just bugged me. On the other hand, when the temple did not charge any admission fees and left everything up to the visitor to give a "donation" they suffered. So what's the answer? I do not know.

From the Tiger temple, we drive a short way and stop for lunch at a local restaurant. Then we have a very long 3 hour ride back to Bangkok where we get stuck in the notorious traffic.

All in all, we absolutely love our day with Tong. I can't imagine visiting any of the places we went without her. A big bus tour absolutely would not compare.

If you'd like to contact Tong, you can email her at tourwithtong@yahoo.com Be patient if you don't hear back from her right away as she is a very busy girl. If you've found her through this website, please make sure to let her know.

For dinner, we decide to try one of the street vendors outside the ROS, across from the River City Mall. We settle on one which had a menu in English, a big crowd of people who appear to be enjoying their food, and just order a plate of pork with garlic and rice. We also have a coke and a bottle of water. The food comes, not bad, but not spectacular. We ask for a check and are told 250 baht. Excuse me?

Overpriced and over-garliced.

You know, I thought I'd learned this lesson before; never order off a menu with no prices with out asking first. Shame on me. Drinks were 20 b each which means the pork was 210? That's restaurant prices not sit-in-a-plastic-chair on the street prices. The guy would not look us in the eye. I appeal to the cook who I knew spoke a little English because I'd spoken to him earlier. He ignores me and then says "250 baht" after the other guy spoke to him. Nice racket. Sigh. it's not the amount of money that ticks me off, it's the feeling of being "had". It irritates me for the rest of the night. I think I'm more mad at myself than anything else.


Thailand and Cambodia Intro
Thai Air LAX to BKK
Bangkok Day 1
Bangkok Day 2-Tour with Tong
Bangkok Day 3-Markets
Siem Reap-Day 1
Siem Reap-Day 2
Siem Reap-Day 3
Siem Reap-Koh Ker School
Bangkok Day 4
Bangkok Day 5


Merit Packages for Monks, 20 baht each.























The devil herself.








Orchids at the Pottery workshop.











































Hawk with injured wing.


Good Monk


Daddy and the boys.























Ooooh, what a face!








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