Sunday, 12 April 2009

The Amazing Race 14, Episode 8

Phuket (Thailand) - Bangkok (Thailand)

Since Thailand isn’t one of my favorite countries, nor Bangkok one of my favorite cities, and I’ve been in both only briefly, I thought it would be better to give you a chance to hear from people who know and like these places better than I do, and have spent more time there. This week’s guest commentary is from another of my former colleagues, Matt Radack :

First of all, thanks to Edward for letting me share my thoughts on this episode of The Amazing Race 14 . Set entirely in Thailand, it brought up two of the more interesting elements of travel there: transport and trannies. Let’s focus on transportation first.

The racers’ first task was to travel from the southern resort island of Phuket to Bangkok, a distance of about 690 km (430 miles). That’s roughly the distance from San Francisco to Los Angeles, or Boston to Washington DC. Depending on your budget and timing, there are several options for domestic travel within Thailand, including air, rail and bus, all of which are quite comfortable and affordable

As all flights within Thailand are under 1-2 hours, air is generally the choice of those with limited time. The same distances by bus or train could easily take 15-20 hours, depending on whether or not your destination can be reached in a straight shot, or (as is more often the case) you’ll need to take some kind of combination of train, bus, taxi and/or ferry. For those people who truly believe that getting there is half the fun, ground transportation is arguably worth the adventure (and might be worth the time for the sightseeing, at least in one direction). Several companies operate “VIP” buses which, as is normal in many more developed parts of the developing world, are rather luxurious compared to most buses in the USA. And the best Thai long-distance trains are as comfortable as Amtrak. However, for travellers on short vacations who won’t be in Thailand for more than 1-2 weeks, flights may be the way to go.

Although Bangkok is the primary arrival and departure airport for most international travellers, both Chiang Mai and Phuket are accessible with one-stop connections from the USA via Hong Kong, Taipei, Seoul, or Tokyo. Even the tiny island of Ko Samui offers nonstop international flights to and from Hong Kong and Singapore.

All flights between Thailand and North America currently require at least one transit/refueling stop. Thai Airways’ nonstop service LAX-Bangkok was discontinued last year, and the airline is once again operating one-stop service to and form the USA via Osaka, stopping to refuel and let passengers on and off, but continuing on the same plane. Usually you have to get off the plane while it refuels anyway, so there isn’t much practical difference between a one-stop same-plane “direct” or “through” flight and a single change of planes. Nor does it much matter where you change planes, unless you want to stop over and spend some time there.

Simply getting to Southeast Asia is an entire day’s worth of travel from most of North America. Flights from major West Coast gateways such as San Francisco and Los Angeles take anywhere from 18-20 hours in each direction, plus the loss of 1-2 calendar days when crossing the International Date Line (something I’ll leave to Edward to explain some other time). If you leave the USA on day 1, you’ll arrive in S.E. Asia on day 2 or 3 , local time, depending on where in the USA and what time of day you started.

Unfortunately fares to secondary destinations can sometimes be considerably higher than fares to Bangkok, but often it’s only a difference of about US$100 round-trip, which is more than what you’d pay for a round-trip ticket from Bangkok to either Chiang Mai (about US$135) or Phuket (about US$150). Taiwanese carrier China Airlines (which offers 1-stop service via its hub in Taipei to Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Phuket) frequently features some good Web-only fares in the Promotion section on its website. These are often extremely competitive fares, especially to secondary Southeast Asian destinations, that the airline does an unbelievably poor job of marketing itself, as they’re not distributed through most metasearch sites (such as or online travel agencies (such as,, or As always, it pays to shop around. Using other Web sites, I’ve found advertised fares recently from LAX and SFO to Bangkok for as low as US$700 total (including taxes and fees), whereas most advertised fares to Phuket were over US$1000 total. Whether or not it’s worth spending the extra money to save time depends completely on your own schedule and budget.

As much as I do recommend flying in or out of other cities for those with specific plans, that’s not to say that I don’t recommend Bangkok. On the contrary, I find it to be one of the world’s most fascinating cities. And as the racers discovered this week, it’s also a busy metropolis where getting around can be challenging.

The teams got around Thailand’s capital this week using taxis and long-tail boats. Any Bangkok local or frequent international business traveller would advise you (especially if you were in a race for a million dollars) that the fastest way to get around the city is by Bangkok’s modern and efficient Skytrain.

Ironically, many travellers from the USA who never set foot on public transportation in their own cities, are eager to ride on it as soon as they venture abroad. That may partly be due to the fact that people form the USA who can afford to travel abroad are likely to be middle-to-upper-class, whereas ridership on most public transportation in the USA tends to be lower or working-to-middle-class.

In Thailand, the opposite is true. Although Bangkok’s Skytrain is an affordable option for international travellers with fares ranging from THB15-40 (Thai Baht) (about US$.42-US$1.13), that’s a considerable sum to most locals in a country where the annual per capita GDP is US$4155. Simply put, that means that it costs an average Thai 3.6%-10% of their average daily income just to take one trip on the Skytrain. While this is an option for the city’s economic elite, it’s not for most ordinary citizens, who have to rely on cheaper, slower forms of public transit (i.e. buses), or bicycles — or walk.

This is unfortunately becoming standard in many parts of the developing world. Similar economics can be found in Delhi, India, which also recently opened a new Metro system. Fares range from INR6-22 (Indian Rupees), which is only US$.12-US$.44. That may seem like a bargain compared to Bangkok, but the annual per capita GDP in India is only US$941. That means that a single ride on the Delhi metro costs the average Indian an astonishing 4.6%-17% of their daily wages. As in Thailand, there is a widening gap in India between the rich and poor, however in India it’s even more pronounced.

To the south of Thailand, in Singapore, fares on the MRT subway cost about the same as what they do on the Bangkok Skytrain. Prices vary from SGD1-2 (Singapore Dollars), or about US$.66-US$1.24, but Singapore’s annual per capita GDP is US$36,000 — nearly 9 times what it is in Thailand. That means that a single subway ride for the average Singaporean only represents 0.06%-1.2% of their daily wages. As a result, it’s a much more popular form of transportation. The Singapore MRT carries 1.5 million passengers daily, which is 31% of the city-state’s population of 4.8 million people. Contrast that with just 5% (400K daily riders out of 8 million people) in Bangkok, and just 6.7% (800K daily riders out of 12 million people) in Delhi.

One of the best examples of a world-class public transportation that is within the grasp of most average citizens, even in a “developing” country, can be found just south of our own border. The Mexico City Metro is the 6th-busiest metro rail system in the world, trailing only Tokyo, Moscow, Mumbai, Seoul and New York. It is also arguably more impressive than anything found in most cities in the USA, even those with respectable public transit systems such as Chicago or Boston.

The Mexico City Metro features 11 lines and 185 stations, with daily ridership of almost 4 million passengers, or about 44% of the city’s 9 million people (and still an impressive 15% of the metro area’s 28 million population). Rubber tires (like those found in Paris and Santiago) mean that trains are quiet. The entire system escaped completely unscathed from the massive 8.1 earthquake that struck Mexico City in 1985. Each stop features a unique pictographic icon in addition to a name, making navigation much easier for travellers. At every stop, train doors open and then close in about 8-10 seconds total, in which time you need to either get on, get off, or get the hell out of the way! Thus one drawback of the Mexico City Metro is that it’s not exactly user-friendly for the elderly or disabled, although both are allowed to ride for free.

But what makes the Mexico City Metro most impressive is its fare, which is just MXN20 (“Mexican New Pesos”), or about US$0.15, to any destination. In a country where the annual per capita GDP is US$10,747, that means that a single subway fare can be had for just 0.5% of an average day’s wages. That provides working class citizens with both an affordable as well as an environmentally-friendly alternative way to get around this sprawling metropolis.

Finally, I couldn’t pass on the opportunity to guest-blog this week and not mention the karaoke-singing transvestites who accompanied the racers in their “party taxis”. It’s pretty hard to go to any bar in Bangkok (as well as most big cities in Southeast Asia) without looking around and thinking to one’s self “Wow, there sure are a whole lot of transvestites here.” On this week’s episode of “The Amazing Race”, that clearly left quite an impression on Jen, who didn’t seem so much disturbed by the situation as she was simply shocked. It’s not that transvestites are everywhere in Southeast Asia, but you are far more likely to see them in public places with much greater frequency than you are pretty much anywhere else in the world.

Commonly referred to as “ladyboys” in English or “kathoey” in Thai, transvestites are arguably more accepted in many Southeast Asian countries than they are in the West. The notable difference is that while transvestites are often considered to be a part of the gay community in the West, they’re seen as an independent “third sex” in Southeast
Asia. As recently as 2003, the Thailand Department of Mental Health considered homosexuality to be a psychiatric disease, however “kathoey” have long been accepted.

A similar phenomenon is found elsewhere in Southeast Asia in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country. While homosexuality is not openly embraced by much of the Islamic world, transvestites (or “waria” as they’re known) in Indonesia are generally considered to be a female soul born into a male body, and are reasonably tolerated in Indonesia. Thus the idea of two men being together as lovers or sex partners may still be considered offensive to conservative Indonesians, while the idea of a man identifying as a man being with a man identifying as a woman is not.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 12 April 2009, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

This is one of my favorite shows, but it never seems to fail. The Americans on this show continue to make us look like idiots to the respective natives of whichever country they are in.

Posted by: Anonymous, 29 April 2009, 11:16 (11:16 AM)
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