Friday, November 4, 2011

Elephants, Tuk Tuks & Etc.

(Warning: this blog post contains generalizations. In general, generalizations are not meant to actually include all cases, but rather allow for the presence of exceptions. This generalization is no exception.)

I was skeptical about the elephant ride. Shannon professed a lifelong interest in riding on an elephant, but I had my doubts about both the quality of the experience and the morality of supporting an industry that I suspected put the elephants’ interests well below anyone else’s. But, I was not going to stand in the way of Shannon’s dream (never a good idea for a spouse), so I kept my mouth shut and went along.

As Shannon has written, the experience fulfilled all my expectations and none of hers. The ride itself was horrible, kind of like riding a crippled horse. The basket lurched and rolled; you had to keep a firm grip on the armrests. I can’t imagine what a three-hour ride would be like; a half-hour was exhausting. I’m sure they make a lot of money off tourists who go in for the “whole-day trek” and abandon after a couple of kilometers.

And, of course, the animals were treated about how I expected. They had small pens, were forced to schlep badly-dressed tourists up and down a 15% hill all day and were regularly wacked by their drivers with bamboo poles. So, it was only karma at work when I dropped my cell phone from the top of my pachyderm. I took it out to take a photo and—oops—there it went, 12 feet to its demise. Although it missed the pile of dung by a fraction of an inch, the screen cracked, rendering it unusable.

The site of karmic justice

Luckily, it appears that I will not have too much trouble getting an inexpensive replacement through the classifieds here in Hong Kong. The reason is that Hong Kongers are absolutely crazy about their cell phones. Everyone has a cell phone, even people who seem too poor to even house themselves adequately. Ride the train and everyone is bent over their phone. As a recent study revealed, Hong Kong has the second highest rate of mobile phone subscription in the world—almost two lines for every person!  Only Macau, across the Zhuajiang River Estuary, has more. Part of the reason is that it’s so damn cheap. Our phone/data plan costs only US$20 a month! Why not get two? Dual SIM phones are very popular here.

While folks here like their phones, they have a clear distaste for stairs. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because they have to walk so much to get around anyway. But, no one takes the stairs. At the train station, masses queue up to go on the escalators while the stairs are empty. I regularly see students on campus take the elevators up one floor, often waiting a full minute for it to arrive. At UMass Dartmouth, virtually no students, aside from those with a disability or injury, take the elevator, even going up three floors. At Lingnan, almost everyone takes the elevator.

I might pass judgment on this apparent laziness if it weren’t for the fact that so few people here are overweight. There’s no need to climb stairs to burn a few extra calories. I can count on one hand the number of truly obese people I’ve seen.

Perhaps it’s all the necessary walking, perhaps it’s the diet or perhaps it’s that Hong Kongers just like to look good. Indeed, they are a sharp-dressing society. This is a status-oriented society, and clothing conveys status. Everyone looks trendy (though there is a subset of adults, mostly female, that seems to think Disney prints are a good idea to wear on your body). They look good dressed up, dressed down, dressed sideways.

Speaking of dressing sideways, the resort we stayed at in Phuket was filled with Russians. They dress fine in general, but all the men, regardless of their location on the BMI chart, wear speedos. In any event, it was great to be amongst them and observe their ways and customs; it almost counts—in terms of cultural exposure—as a trip to Russia.

Besides this cultural exchange, while in Phuket we also had continued opportunity to access the wonderful transportation market of Thailand. Here, as in Bangkok, there are many ways to get from point A to point B, and virtually none of them are regulated in any way. Indeed, I would say the Thai transportation market is the closest I’ve seen to a perfect, efficient market. Supply and demand are free to work their magic with few constraints. Need to get out of the airport? Here are the guys waiting at the gate, with prices listed on placards. Here are cabs waiting outside (meters, schmeters—you just negotiate your price). Here’s a transportation stand, where you can get a fixed-price trip, perhaps in a van. Don’t like this guy’s price? Go to the next guy and negotiate the best deal. And in the city, you can add the tuk tuks and open-backed pickups, all of which operate on a negotiated-fare basis.

Walking through Patong, seeing the endless rows of taxis and tuk tuks waiting curbside, I could almost sense the invisible hand, imagining a young Thai teenager, thinking about his career prospects in transportation. “Well, the last thing this place needs is another tuk tuk. Guess it’s elephant trekking for me.”

Making Adam Smith proud


  1. And don't forget the old seat on a motorcycle. Seriously - there are guys driving around on motorcycles in florescent vests; flag them down and hop on after negotiating a price. If you're alone, it's probably the cheapest way to go. Of course, it's probably also the most dangerous. Many women ride side-saddle (because they have skirts on), and since they don't know the man giving them a ride, clutch their purses instead of the driver or the motorcycle itself. Totally nuts given the state of Thai traffic.

  2. Interesting observations! I love reading both your and Shannons writings-they crack me up!!
    The Holidays should be interesting!
    Love, Baba