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Lost in transportation

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My friendly taxi driver in Bangkok Taking a taxi in Thailand isn’t easy if you’re a foreigner who doesn’t speak the language. This morning, I wanted to take a taxi to Vimanmek Mansion for some sightseeing.

The place was recommended in Thai Airways’ in-flight magazine as one of the lesser-known, yet worth-while sights in Bangkok. “Famous as the world’s largest teakwood building, Vimanmek Mansion is set in spacious green gardens…” it said in the magazine. Reason enough for me to go there.

Off the beaten track…

The first taxi I got into didn’t know what the hell I was talking about when I told him I wanted to go to Vimanmek Mansion. I showed him the page from the Thai Airways magazine, which I’d cleverly torn our and saved, but that didn’t help either.Article from the Thai Airways in-flight magazine

My taxi driver couldn’t read the name Vimanmek because the Thais have a different alphabet. And the picture in the text didn’t look like anything he recognized.

So after some shrugging, smiling and friendly explanations (I presume) in Thai, he pulled over and let me out of his car.

Same, same

In the next taxi, things got off to a familiar start. This time, however, the driver called someone on his cell phone and then handed it to me.

I guess the person on the other end was supposed to be able to understand me and then explain to the driver where I wanted to go.

So in the friendliest and most arti-cu-la-ted way I could, I told the person on the other end: “I would like to go to Vimanmek Mansion.”

I heard a click and the line went dead.

But my taxi driver had his heart set on getting me to my destination, so he made another call. Again, he gave me the phone and once again, I tried to explain what I wanted to the stranger on the other end “Vimanmek Mansion. I want to go to Vimanmek Mansion.”

But I just got passed on to someone else. “Vimanmek Mansion. I would like to go to Vimanmek,” I told him, but his response in Thai was beyond me. “Vimanmek. I want to go to Vimanmek,” I said one more time. He hung up.

Frustration turns to puzzlement

I was almost ready to get out of the taxi in the hope that another driver might know this place, but my driver had already pulled up to a hotel and gotten the attention of the livered employee standing in front of it.

Article from the Thai Airways in-flight magazineThe driver showed him my article from the Thai Airways magazine and luckily, this hotel employee was able to read English. He said something to my taxi driver in Thai, who then laughed out loud.

I can only guess that what he then said must have been something like: “Oh, you want to go to Vimanmek! Why didn’t you just say so? Vimanmek Mansion, ha ha, Vimanmek Mansion!”

But wasn’t that what I’d said all along?

I still haven’t figured out why episodes like this one happen so often when Westerners try to pronounce Asian words.

It’s always the same story: The Asians we address just look at us as though we’re speaking gibberish. We try to say the word again and again, until finally someone understands what we’re trying to say.

And then they repeat what we’ve said just the way we’ve said it (at least it always seems that way to me). But to our Asian counterparts, the way we said it must have been absolutely incomprehensible.

Maybe it’s the tonal thing – that we Westerners just can’t get the tonality of the words right. All we hear is the pronunciation, not the pitch or melody of the word.

Vimanmek, I want to go to VimanmekVimanmek Mansion in Bangkok

By the way: if you’re ever in Bangkok and thinking about visiting Vimanmek Mansion, go! It’s worth it.

But you may want to ask a Thai to write it down for you in Thai script before you get on a taxi.

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New York – Still Almost the Same

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Lady Liberty I came across a music video clip in a blog the other day – and I haven’t stopped humming the tune since then.

It’s an excerpt from the song & dance movie “On The Town”, which was filmed in 1949.

In the clip, Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Jules Munchin are sailors who have 24 hours on land to explore New York. For the three minutes of the song, they dance and sing their way through New York, seeing a lot of the major sights and attractions.

What I found really fascinating (apart from the music) is that almost sixty years after these scenes were shot, a lot of those backdrops are still around, still recognizable and still tourist attractions.

The pathway across Brooklyn Bridge still looks just like it did in the old film clip, so does the Stock Exchange at Wall Street. Chinatown still has vendors selling Asian stuff on the streets and Lady Liberty doesn’t seem to have aged much either.

Of course, some details have changed – for instance, the visitors’ platform on top of the Rockefeller Center, where the three sailors enjoy the view.

A few years ago, this platform was nicely done-up and rebranded ‘Top of the Rocks’. With a lot of added security like large panes of plexiglass to prevent people from jumping or throwing stuff down. Kelly, Sinatra and Munchin could have easily done that in 1949…

Granted, between 1949, when the movie was shot and today, a lot has changed in New York. The Twin Towers went up and came down. Frank Lloyd Wright built the Guggenheim, and many new skyscrapers now make up the skyline of Manhattan.

But still – I found it amazing that a three-minute video-clip from 1949 can capture so many of the things that are still on the agenda of visitors to New York today. They certainly were on my agenda when I was in the city earlier this month.

Just wish those three sailors had serenaded me on my long walks through the city…

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