A Letter from China
March 6, 2001
13th in a series from Ernest Pinson
It was a wet, cold, foggy, drizzling, 6 AM, January day, a Saturday morning when any sane person would be home snuggled in a warm bed for late Saturday sleeping. But no; here I was up and running with 36 Chinese, travelers I'd never met, headed for Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia on the busiest holiday season of China----the so-called Spring Festival of the Lunar Calendar, even though it comes in January, most generally their coldest month. The temperature was, in fact, below freezing then.
The group of 39 (beside me there was another professor and his wife, none of us very fluent in the Chinese language) had booked this package tour a month in advance because of cheaper rates. The Chinese government has a virtual monopoly on travelling tours since the government owns every tour company, no matter the company's name. (The same is true of all banks in China even though they go by such Chinese names as Agricultural Bank, Merchant's Bank, Industrial Bank, Farmers Bank, Bank of Commerce, Construction Bank, Worker's Bank, Bank of Travel----all are under the central Bank of China which is government controlled and owned.)
The Chinese government, in fact, until its entry into WTO, controlled almost all heavy industry in China, air-land-sea public transportation (except taxis), oil, shipping, and many large department stores; some of these are profit making, some are heavily in debt and absorbing losses.
This was an eleven-day trip it turns out even though it was advertised as ten days. Because of lack of competition, a travel agency can treat its customers shabbily and get away with it, since there's no recourse to a competitor.
Of course there's an upside to a monopoly, too -- it can get reduced rates for hotels, tour, tickets, and food -- which may or may not be passed on to the customers. This season the airlines raised prices 15 percent to 20 percent, and hotel charges, gratuities and extra travel arrangements were upped. We foreigners were charged an additional $100 just for the privilege of being foreigners even though their books say they quit that; but they also say no "tips" are accepted -- don't believe that either. They even came around to our rooms one night to collect tips for each tour guide.
Some of the problems began at the airport on the first day, and included turning a 10-day trip miraculously into an 11-day trip, since going on an "optional" side excursion somehow became a "required" trip. The "majority rules", they said, if the majority wants to go. We were also taken to a sex show featuring transvestites and urged to attend others (China prohibits such shows on the mainland); our gratuities jumped 30% due to the "Spring Festival" time; and only Chinese food was served instead of native cuisine to accommodate the 37 Chinese on our tour even though we traveled through Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia. The tour plan was inept and slanted (we never really got to see Bangkok despite 6 days in Thailand) and we spent only half a day in Singapore.
But there were good things too. Some of the places included were fairly inexpensive, we stayed in fairly good 3-star hotels (except not in Kuala Lumpur), we had two really good tour guides (well, 2 out of 3 isn't bad). I traveled with a delightful couple from Saint Louis, saw the twin towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (world's tallest buildings), visited a Chinese owned Casino atop a mountain via a sky-lift (although that whole day turned out to be a waste). But the highlights were the short visit to ultra modern Singapore (no chewing gum allowed on streets) that is quite possibly the prettiest city in the world, a marvelous Chinese translator who more than once saved my neck: and, oh yes, the temperature hovered in the 80's in January even though it is their main winter month as well.
First, let's visit Thailand, the world's 20th most populated country with 66 million souls, 6.8 of which lives in Bangkok, where almost half the population is under the age of 30. About 85% are ethnically Thai, 12% Chinese, and 4 % "other". Some 90% are Buddhist. The current government is defined as a constitutional monarchy, but that is only on paper: the royal family is the royalty chosen. They have had constant turmoil with army uprisings, and a democracy which has lasted only three years. King Bhumibol Adulyabdej (Rama IX) is greatly respected and is chief of state, and the Prime Minister is head of the government. There is a big national assembly and three levels of courts. Remember Thailand was called Siam until a few years ago. Their written language only goes back to 1828, but they have dances that go back centuries.
This is the land of The Bridge Over the River Kwai, and is that mysterious, exotic "East" of which Bangkok was once known as the "Venice of the East." Thai, Chinese, and Indian markets rival anything in Asia, especially the klongs (canals) and their floating markets that support thousands of residents.
Thai means "land of the free" but that's only partly true; modern day Bangkok is a tourist Mecca with one of the best hotel net-works in the world. It has unrivaled shops for Asian handcrafts, top quality silk, excellent jewelry and high fashion. The sad thing about our trip is that we didn't see much of this, spending instead 1 full day at the beach, 2 half days travelling on the bus, 1 day at the bridge over the Kwai River, and really only 1 day in Bangkok.
But oh that Singapore! That city is really something else; all cars must park underground, no telephone or electric wires are above ground, no signs are permitted to be attached to buildings except on ground level floors, and no spitting is allowed on the street. Our tour guide's husband spent 6 days in jail for drinking 8 beers.
But more about that next time. Tune in to China via Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia in a couple of weeks.
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