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The Amazing Race 2, Episode 5 (3 April 2002)

Windhoek (Namibia) - Bangkok (Thailand) - Ratchaburi (Thailand) - Ampawa (Thailand)

If there’s a moral to this week’s episode of “The Amazing Race 2”, it’s that getting to and from the airport, and getting around on the ground, are apt to be more challenging than the flight — and that travellers’ best friends are the people they befriend, or who befriend them, along the way.

Starting out more than 5 hours apart in Windhoek, Namibia, all 7 remaining teams ended up on the same flight from Johannesburg to Bangkok, arriving around noon the next day. (We can only guess what might have happened had they left Namibia on one of those days when there was no direct flight from Southern Africa to Bangkok, and they had more of a challenge in their choice of routes.) But by the end of an afternoon of tasks in and near Bangkok, the teams were almost as far apart once again, with some teams getting to the “pit stop” in full daylight and others not until well into the night.

Aside from airports where the contestants changed planes, Bangkok is the first destination visited in both seasons of “The Amazing Race”. That should be no surprise: for better or worse, Bangkok is one of the travellers’ crossroads of the world, as well as a major regional air transportation hub served by a wide variety of airlines (in contrast to some airports dominated overwhelmingly by a single locally-based airline). Bangkok is far and away the most-visited destination in Asia for clients on trips around the world. Tourist sections of Bangkok — especially Khao San Road, the quintessential backpacker “tourist ghetto” — are among those places where you’re never surprised to bump into almost any traveller you know, no matter where in the world you saw them last.

Despite its popularity, though, and its deserved reputation as a place where anything a tourist might want can easily and cheaply be arranged, Bangkok can be a challenge to travellers’ skills. With almost 10 million people in the metropolitan area, Bangkok is bigger than any U.S. city except New York or Los Angeles. It’s sprawling, poorly planned, and not easy to get around: the new elevated rail system has only limited routes, and traffic is chaotic, congested, and slow. The Thai script is as incomprehensible as Chinese characters to most newly arrived foreigners, and those unused to tonal languages generally find it next to impossible even to recognize, much less repeat recognizably, simple place names. Except for people who work in the tourist industry, students, and some young professionals, few people speak English. Even Wil and Tara, who visit Bangkok several times a year on business, were having a hard time communicating with their drivers, shopkeepers, and people they asked for directions.

Russell and Cyndi, who were eliminated this week, are used to living in a small town, and had a hard time orienting themselves in such a big city. They might have had almost as much difficulty in New York or another big city in the USA. Which goes to show, once again, that the things that are most difficult about traveling abroad are usually the same things that are difficult about traveling closer to home. The tasks for the racers were, in and of themselves, quick and simple. Almost all the challenge this week was in urban navigation, ground transportation (by bus, train, taxi, and “tuk tuk” or motor rickshaw), and communication. The key to coping with all of these things was the help of strangers.

This week’s hero of “The Amazing Race 2” was a Thai schoolgirl named Phern, whom Danny and Oswald met on the bus from the airport to Bangkok and persuaded to accompany them for the day as their guide. At the time, the “South Beach boys” were dead last in the race, and without her guidance they might well have been the ones eliminated. They gave Phern profuse and sincere thanks (as well as the chance to appear on global TV). But they get a significant share of the credit themselves: None of the other contestants this season, in any of the episodes, has yet recognized the critical importance of using every possible moment on planes, trains, buses, or ferries to recruit local people amongst the passengers to help them in the race. And it only happened a few times in the first season of “The Amazing Race”. Along with failing to consult Internet travel services for optimal flight routes, it’s one of the most significant and systemic mistakes the racers in both seasons have been making. As I’ve mentioned in previous columns, you don’t have to be in a race to learn from their example what valuable allies local people can be.

Didn’t make the cut for “The Amazing Race”? Want to visit Thailand, and a few other nearby countries, yourself? For cheap? A few weeks ago, I called attention in my newsletter to the US$747 (plus taxes, low season) Malaysia Airlines sale fare for round-trip travel from Los Angeles to Kuala Lumpur, plus as many side trips from K.L. to other destinations in East and Southeast Asia as you care to take in 30 days. It’s an extra $150 in high season — although there are no blackout dates — and for more money it can be extended for up to 90 days and/or to destinations in other regions. (You should also get travel insurance against airline bankruptcy: no offense to Malyasia Airlines, or any other carrier, but with below-cost prices like this some airlines may not make it through the year.) If your reaction was, “Too bad I don’t live on the West Coast”, you’re in luck: the airline is now matching the $747 price through January 2003 on its flights from Newark to K.L., via the Atlantic, which were suspended after September 11th but will resume in June. It’s a good price from Los Angeles, but it’s a spectacular price from New York. I have no financial interest in this or any airline, and I don’t sell these tickets, but it’s a deal too good to pass up. As they say in the ads (except that I haven’t seen any ads for this particular sale), “Seats are limited. Call Malyasia Airlines or your travel agent, or visit today.” There’s never been a better, or cheaper, time to travel. Bon voyage!

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