Greetings from Bangkok
Arriving near midnight at the Suvarnabhumi Airport on the 24th of June, I dashed over to the Nasa Vegas Hotel for my first night in the city. Located next to the Ramkhamhaeng train stop on the Airport rail link into the city, with cheap rates and quality to match, it is vary convenient for visitors arriving so late. There is a deluxe Novotel Hotel right at the airport for anyone willing to spend $220 for a few hours of being horizontal before heading into the city itself.
In my case, reservations starting the next day awaited at the excellent value, five star $65 Dream Hotel which I've been watching for several years. I found the best rates at the Agoda booking site. Everything is deluxe quality worthy of the five star rating... except the breakfast buffet: that is merely adequate, maybe 3 or 4 stars. My guess is that the F&B manager needs a bigger budget for the operation. Unvarying selections of items day after day and no sea food at all make my breakfast experiences ho hum. Several bright sparkles include the banana smoothie included with the juices, the self serve Bloody Mary station for those who fancy some hair of the dog with breakfast, delicious fresh baked whole wheat breads... and the big piles of crisp bacon... which I can't eat! The dining room staff are all exceptionally courteous and attentive. Their friendliness helped me overlook the absence of great gourmet breakfast selections during the several weeks I spent in the hotel, something difficult for anyone who often finds a lingering breakfast the highlight of the day.
Being so conveniently located near my dentist, the Bumrungrad Hospital and the Chinese Consulate, convinced me to tolerate the necessary compromises with the hotel food. Lunch is another matter, however. Blue Spice sashimi $14 lunches in the nearby Terminal 21 shopping complex, the Furama Silom Hotel $11 luncheon buffet and several other interesting nearby food courts all offer satisfying lunch possibilities including sashimi. The Dream Hotel security is top notch and the WiFi has performed flawlessly. Located on Soi 15, an alley off the main Sukhumvit boulevard has been organized so there is an actual, mostly uncluttered sidewalk for guests to use along the block from the hotel to the main street where the BTS stations are located, something not common along other such alleyways in the Nana area.
Medical attention always occupies the first parts of my visits to Bangkok. This time the dentist found three cavities, one of which required the replacement of a crown. Total cost for all the procedures came to about $400. Because I would miss my next ophthalmology appointment back home, I stopped in the Bumrungrad for an eye examination and got the works: total cost about $270 which included piles of test images to take back to my doctors in Las Vegas. Anatomical changes associated with threatening glaucoma have begun to appear and there is evidence of early stages of Macular degeneration, all the price some of us must pay for living so long!
The cost of the Executive Physical Checkup at the Bumrungrad Hospital continues to increase every year. What started as a $300 bargain twelve years ago is now almost $600, still cheap by U.S. standards. The included stress test shows I have the heart of a lion and the abdominal ultrasonic scan found the gallbladder in good shape, but with more stones than a year ago. Cholesterol levels are being controlled by my medications apparently, but greatly elevated fasting blood sugar levels are a big concern and might explain the early stages of Macular degeneration discovered during the eye examination. The incipient glaucoma concerns remain, but there has been no progression.
Getting into the DPRK means travelling through the PRC, so a Chinese visa is required. The Chinese Consulate visa chaise proved onerous. A short three stop MRT underground ride got me to the Thailand Cultural Center stop near the consulate and a five minute walk got me to the building. A staff member handed me my service number and I sat down to wait... and wait. When my number finally came up after an hour, the very young lady behind the window spoke in such soft tones using strangely pronounced English, I couldn't understand anything she said. Finally, exasperated I made her understand her words could not be understood by this American octogenarian and she proceeded to scribble unintelligible notes on a scrap of paper.
It turned out the notes and urgent jabbering concerned her excitement with the news that the USA and China had recently signed an agreement to allow American citizens to obtain multiple entry visas now good for ten years! While that certainly is good news, my present situation made it immediately irrelevant and only added to the already formidable confusion I faced trying to communicate with this soft spoken lass. In the end, she took all my hastily assembled documentation and visa application plus passport and handed me a receipt containing instructions for paying the visa fee at a Bank of China, which turned out to be located immediately adjacent to the consulate.
The written instructions on the receipt were so tiny I couldn't read them in the dim light even with my glasses. Finally, one of the consulate helpers who spoke understandable English interpreted for me. I dashed next door to check out the bank situation to make sure all would be as expected five days later when I would pay the 4,560 Baht ($134) fee and pick up my passport, hopefully now containing the great new 10 year multiple entry visa.
FLASH: Having just returned from a visit to Tunisia earlier this year, every new report of terrorist attacks in that tiny North African nation gets my attention. You may recall that two weeks after I left the country many tourists were killed when gunmen attacked the Tunis Museum not far from my hotel. Now, "On 26 June 2015, there was an Islamic terror attack at the tourist resort at Port El Kantaoui, about 10 kilometres north of the city of Sousse, Tunisia." Sousse is the main resort town south of Tunis which I had avoided in favor of Hammamet a bit closer to the capital.
For many years now I have been lamenting the wealth and income disparity throughout the world and have been ranting in my postcards for the past two (2012 and 2013). One sees this disparity everywhere around the globe, but the United States represents the best example. Such obscene concentrations of unearned wealth in the hands of the few dramatically distorts the political process and guarantees the will of the majority remains irrelevant. Even well meaning idealistic politicians must work within a system where a majority of their colleagues do the bidding of those who provided the necessary funding for a successful election campaign. A small oligarchy insures those elected will be responsive to their greedy interests.
Over the years I have pondered this despicable situation, exploring with friends the possible solutions which might be pursued. As my years of wisdom have overtaken youthful idealism, I have become increasingly disillusioned. Most of us are totally impotent in the face of the massive wealth and power possessed by that tiny cadre which runs the world. Reasonable voices are raised from time to time, but their impact quickly fades.
As America readies itself for another presidential election, one sensible voice stands out among the presidential candidates. Is it possible that Bernie Sanders' message could ignite the passions of the poorly informed electorate so easily swayed by the onslaught of massively funded campaign commercials? I doubt it, but at the moment he is the most prominent spokesman for right and reason I have noted. Watch this 11 minute speech on YouTube to see what I mean.
Preparation for my upcoming trip into the DPRK has included watching many YouTube videos of trips made by others, including several credible documentaries (notice all the additional videos listed down the right hand column of every YouTube presentation). All of those I've watched have made it clear the dangers to foreign tourists are no greater than travel in most other countries, especially when using one of the well connected DPRK travel agents like Koryo Tours. The political implications are another matter.
Is it ethical to enter the country as a tourist? Tourism is a major source of foreign exchange for the regime and many point out the reality that tourists unwittingly interfere with the trade sanctions imposed by the United Nations. I understand the arguments, but feel there also is value in objective observers seeing for themselves what is going on with the people. So, I will go... and keep any critical comments to myself for the time being.
More when something note worthy happens.
Fred L Bellomy
Prescript: Postcard from Beijing - 16 July 2015
Hello from Bangkok, Next Tuesday, 21 July 02:00 I fly off to Beijing
in preparation for a visit to North Korea. The reality that I'll soon be in
China and will be forced to accommodate my cyberspace activities to Chinese
censorship means I need to plan alternate strategies for sending postcards
without Gmail! This message hopefully, will make all the names on my
postcard list visible for later harvesting, should that again prove
Bangkok June 2015: Decorations seen along the breakfast buffet in the Dream Hotel.