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Going Back to Bangkok: A Return to South East Asia - 2011

Dec 17 - From Winnipeg to Saskatoon

The most excruciating part of the drive to Saskatoon, the first part of our trip to Thailand, was getting up at six in the morning to pack the car and prepare to leave. Happily, the misery was shared by Christinao and Youn-young, who rose with us in the early pre-dawn, and saw us to the car.

I had plugged the car in last night so it was reasonably warmed in the minus fifteen or so of our leaving. We left Winnipeg amongst streaming cars and stunned by the cold, the morning drivers, the lines at the Tim Horton’s, and the bumbling buses crowded into stops. As we drove west we watched the full moon set ahead and to our right and behind us the glow on the eastern horizon turned to a reluctant morning and then finally day.

The hoarfrost on the trees is pretty in the grey sun that illuminates the low hanging clouds, but since our heater works well in the car, the cold of outside only appears to be just so much more television, its credibility strained by the feeling of the heat on our faces and our drying skin.

Little flocks of birds, and more magpies than I expected, pecked the side of the road, no doubt convincing themselves that they could in that way evoke summer, while crows and ravens pulled at the intestines of dead deer and hares on the side of the road. The drive to Saskatoon went surprisingly quickly although I could feel the five hours of sleep. Jackie napped through part of it and I kept myself awake with cold water and liquorice my sister had given me for Christmas.

The car is using more oil than ever, and for at least one fill-up, the gas mileage was very low. I think that was due to a sticking brake, however, and the oil use is a perennial problem. Still, it should get us west.

Arrival in Saskatoon was ahead of schedule, for we pulled in ten hours and eight hundred kilometres after leaving, to find Lynn and Randy waiting for us to accompany them to a hockey game. We spent the evening catching up, exclaiming over the maturity and size of the boys, playing a redneck board game, and talking about the foibles of teaching. It’s nice to enjoy the laidback atmosphere of the house again. It’s been a long time since I’ve visited.

We managed to sleep in a bit, although the sounds of the bouncing ball and the dog’s claws on the hardwood floors Randy tries so desperately to protect woke us at nine in the morning. Breakfast was a leisurely hanging out with Lynn with a brief interlude to help Randy with his snowmobile and chat with the kids. Once we were done though, it was time to fire up the car, which had been plugged in so ran great, gas up, check the oil, and be on our way.

Dec 22 - Saskatoon to Edmonton

The sky was clear most of the way, and although the sheen on the pavement looked suspiciously like a slick of ice, the road was clear except for the occasional riffle of blowing snow. The wind only started up in the afternoon and was behind us, saving us fuel; although the temperature was around minus fifteen it was pleasant enough in the car.

We arrived in Edmonton five hundred kilometres and six hours later, only to find Ibrahim sneaking out to do some errands with the kids. We came back to the house with him, met Alima and the rest of the family, and I made dinner. All three of the kids are tall, confident, thoughtful and polite, and in every way ideal children and young adults. If they only knew it, there is a parenting book here somewhere, if we could bottle whatever it was they did.

After our meandering conversations, everyone went to sleep and Ibrahim and I took on the problems of the engineering world again. That is our most persistent topic, and one which we both have an interest in. I proposed he should be thinking about a particular type of system, following from his earlier research, design, and construction, for instance, only to find that he has been in the process of designing exactly that. Funny that we think alike in terms of what is necessary for the energy-starved world.

It’s time to crash now, for at midnight only Ibrahim is still awake, calling Niger and doing last minute work. He never stops, and certainly never takes a vacation like us.

Dec 23 - Crossing the Mountains

We were the first ones awake this morning, waking to Ismael’s alarm and rising to get some breakfast and say goodbye to the family. My car started reluctantly enough to prove Ibrahim’s suspicion that the cord wasn’t active at all. The car turned over and then started on the third revolution, and I left it to warm while we said our goodbyes. I’d checked the weather last night and it looks like if we rush through the passes we might make Kelowna before the storm that is coming.

The drive to Calgary was cold, at minus twenty, but when we arrived and began to go into the mountains, the temperature had risen to minus four, warm enough for those of us from the plains that we could go with just a sweater, although Calgary people were freezing.

We stopped only long enough to fuel up and then we were on our way to Banff, cruising through the town site to look at the few ski bums and snowboarding kids, as well as older people and other tourists. We drove though the sunny weather to Lake Louise and then the longer section of highway through Kicking Horse Pass and Roger’s Pass. The weather held until we were on the far side of Roger’s Pass, and then a light snow began. That was when we started to see cars in the ditch. By Calgary we had seen lots of tracks where fools had left the road because they were driving too fast. Once we had passed Roger’s, however, we began to see fresher accidents.

The snow turned to blowing, slushy snow, and then rain, as we wound through the narrow winding mountain passes, and then finally into Sicamous, where we turned south to Kelowna.

We arrived in Kelowna nearly twelve hours later, and no one noticed us pulling into the drive except for Leah, the now neglected dog, since Cris has found a younger dog to replace her. Leah merely looked around the corner and ignored us as we grabbed our bags and traipsed into the house, at first startling Darius at the computer and then the rest of the family.

Jan 5 - Leaving Kelowna in the Snow

I typically cannot sleep well when I know I have to get up early and today was no exception. We went to sleep after midnight and I was awake at four and then again at five-thirty when I finally decided to begin the day. We’ve been sleeping in the basement on a mattress from the living room hide-abed, so one of my first tasks was to wrap up the five sleeping bags we’ve been using with my poncho, and tie them together in a bundle for storing in the garage. I’m concerned about mice in my car while we’re away, so I think the garage will be a better bet.

Once I bundled the bedding, and packed away the last of the materials that will stay with the car and excess winter clothing that we don’t need in Thailand, I was finally ready to eat breakfast. Then I hauled the mattress upstairs and put it back into the hide-abed it came from.

We had planned to leave at seven, and were lucky enough to get on the road by seven-thirty, so that we were at the bus station in town before the eight in the morning bus was ready to leave. We had done our part, but alas, the bus service was not prepared to do its. The bus we’d bought tickets for had been changed to an eight forty-five bus. I think they were making up for unsold tickets. We were at the station in good time, especially for such a late arrival, so we talked with my nephew Shay and waited until it was time to board. We managed to get the second row back to compensate for Jackie’s motion sickness, and she and Shay bonded over the problems caused by swaying vehicles. Once they had swapped stories, and Jackie had given Shay a gravol, we were on our way through a snowy Kelowna with a packed bus.

The passes, especially the one between Kelowna and Merritt, were snow swept and treacherous, and our nail-biting driver crept slowly up the now—because of conditions—one lane highway. Shay soon went to sleep after we had whiled away some time chanting, and while all of us napped, the bus climbed the long pass and dropped back down into Merritt.

I was woken to two accidents by the driver applying the brakes, so I saw the two-trailered semi in the median and partially onto the oncoming lane, and I got to peer, with sleep-bleared eyes, at the sporty car, on its side in the right lane, balancing in the snow, while we swept past and I wondered what strange combination of blows could have caused its posture.

Shay slept most of the way into town, as did Jackie, and I slept enough myself, although I kept a weather eye open for the vicissitudes of the road. I found myself wondering about an accident if the bus left the road, if the bus driver’s nails should prove more engrossing than the road and he swerved more than he should and sent us over an embankment. In such a situation, I mused, I would be ill-equipped, having only my knife and some rather paltry winter clothes. Even for matches, I would need to rely on the smokers we carried with us, if any of them were capable of keeping their wits about them in an accident.

We didn’t slide off the road, and instead, the snow turned to big wet flakes, the flakes to rain, and we pulled into Vancouver two hours late. Luckily, for us at least, Shay hadn’t been that clear about his location to his drive, so he accompanied us to the sky-train station and onto a train, where we bid goodbye after a few stations had blown past us.

When we arrived at the New Westminster station, where Nette had told us to disembark, I managed somehow to take a wrong turn and we walked a few frustrating blocks out of our way. I asked a cop for directions, but he was even less useful than us, for he directed us the wrong way. When I realized my mistake, we set off in the right direction, fighting mislaid streets without sidewalks to find Nette’s place. That not particularly auspicious start turned out to prefigure bigger problems.

Once we found the apartment, and met Michele, and relaxed with Nette’s mum’s baking, we were ready to try the slightly expensive Malaysian restaurant that Nette frequents. There we avoided Nasi Goreng, since we will have lot of fried rice in Thailand, and instead tried other dishes, hung out with Nette’s friends, and then came back to enjoy the fifteenth floor condo with the great view of the harbour.

We are one step closer to Thailand now, and I feel as though only a few dozen more steps will see us in Bangkok, walking past Democracy Monument and onto Khaosan road.

January 7 - To the Island to See Dennis

We woke early, considering how late we were up, but as we had decided the night before, Nette drove us to the ferry terminal and we said our goodbyes mere moments before the ferry left Tsawwassen for Swartz Bay on the Island. We were some of the last people hurrying to catch the ferry, and once aboard we found wireless for the laptop, so Jackie settled back with a gravol and enjoyed the ride through the carriages of docking to the open sea of the Strait of Georgia and then amongst the tiny passages of the islands.

Once we arrived on the Island, I found the bus system had changed yet again. Now large double-deckers take people to a central terminal where they pick up their transfer. We did manage to find a bus to Brentwood Bay directly, and negotiated the steep hill down to Dennis’ place.

We woke Dennis from a nap when we rang the bell, but he was sufficiently rested that we spent the entire afternoon and evening hanging out and talking. He was especially loquacious about overseas with Jackie, and liked her quite a bit. We were up until midnight and then tried to sleep on the tiny foldout couch. It didn’t work for Jackie though, so I moved to the floor where I became very conscious of the concrete below me.

Dennis seems to be doing well, and understandably he speaks about Ann a lot and points out items in the house which are related to stories about her.

January 8 - The Return to Vancouver

The trip back to Vancouver began with getting up with Dennis, going for coffee at his favourite coffee shop, or one of them, and then sitting through a Smitty’s lunch, which proved to be expensive and not that good.

Once we were back at the house, I called to find out where we could catch our bus, although there was a bit of excitement when Dennis drove us there when we couldn’t locate a bus stop. We managed to find the bus though, at Stelly’s X road, and we were shortly on our way to the ferry, with the same woman on the bus we had seen on our trip to Brentwood Bay.

The ferry was slightly anticlimactic since it didn’t provide internet so we had no idea about the timing of the bus for Sam’s place. In fact, I wasn’t absolutely sure where Sam lived, except that it was near Jericho Park, where Lance had died. I decided that Jericho, from the view I had observed when I visited the park, must be near False Creek, since the view from there included an unobstructed sight of the mountains in the north.

Accordingly, we left the skytrain at Olympic Village and the translink service kindly provided a free phone, so I found the 84 UBC bus that would take us to Alma St, which is near Sam and Leslie’s place.

Sam’s building proved to be much more confusing than the city itself, but after wandering to the far side of the building, counting down the numbers as we went, we finally found that he was on the left. Then it was a relatively easy matter to come to his door, decorated with a Go Away rug and answered by Sam himself.

After a dinner with Sam and Leslie at Nam, a quasi-Asian vegetarian restaurant near their place, we settled into an evening of sharing our strange YouTube finds, and for Sam and me, long discussions about neuroscience, the burgeoning discoveries in artificial intelligence, and our other interests. We leave for Thailand in a few days, but until then we can relax in the very good company of Sam and Leslie. Then, leaving a few winter clothes and sundry other pack-heavying stuff, we will skytrain and bus it to the airport, where I will throw away my rotting sports coat and my Ernie shirt from Nana, which are both at their fraying ends. Then I won’t have winter clothes at all, but just the four t-shirts, two pairs of shorts, one pair of pants, three pairs of socks, and a long sleeved shirt. Bare minimum, but perfect for not having a heavy pack.


January 14 - Late for Everything

Leslie works near where we get off the skytrain for the airport, so she accompanied us to the airport, which meant that we got there early enough to assuage Jackie’s stress and love of airports. We said our goodbyes to Leslie, and thanks for the hospitality, then we went into the airport only to find, as we suspected, we were too early to check in. Then we killed an hour of wireless and then went back upstairs to find our flight had already left at 2:40 am, and that we were 12 hours late. That was a bad moment.

We played it fairly cool and Cathay Pacific kindly changed our flight times for fifty dollars each. Although we were stressed with the change, each envisioning paying for our tickets again, and Jackie was stressed about security, essentially we were lucky. I can’t really explain how I made that mistake, except to note, once again, that I hate countries like the US and Canada, that mix the 12 hour clock with the 24 hour clock. Very annoying, but we at least got on the flight and I was reminded once again of my own mental deterioration. Those are not mistakes that I would normally make; at least I tell myself that.

Getting on the plane late meant that although we still have window seats and Jackie had a chance to take her gravol, we were late getting into Hong Kong and subsequently late arriving in Bangkok. That meant the 300 baht tourist bus had discontinued service and we were stick with a taxi. Mistakenly, I took the taxi at a stand, which meant an extra 50 baht, although he tried to get 450 baht out of us. Too bad, the 59 bus would have gotten us to Khaosan rd. for 30 baht each. I reminded myself, as I tell everyone, when you are first in a country, you should relax. Do not worry about money the first few days when you are tired, but rather let that happen when you are more relaxed.

Once we were on Khaosan, where the craziness was the same as I remembered, the lateness had again preceded us, as we went to eight different guesthouses only to find them all full. 1:30am is not a good time for Khaosan. When you come late into a country you are a victim. In our case, we were a victim of an 850 Baht room, which may be more than I have ever paid. It has air conditioning, which we are not using, and security, which is always questionable, but 25$ is a lot for a room.

Despite being here so late, I should get up early and find us another place. That’s the plan for tomorrow.

Jan 15 - Our Second Day in Bangkok

Our second full day in Bangkok was mostly spent searching after one thing or another. We sought out food and internet early in the morning and gladly drank orange juice on the strip, ate spring rolls and pad Thai, and had fruit for dessert. The internet café was one that we found by going into an alley when we were taking a short cut back to the strip. It is more modern than most of the more expensive ones and it was only 20 baht an hour, or 5 to 10 baht below market around here, about 80 cents Canadian.

Since we don’t have electricity in our room, we spent the time writing our blogs, which, it seems to me, have started but slowly, given the dearth of laptop time. Internet cafes and restaurants, which is where I am now, make for poor places to write. We are distracted by other customers and the sheer volume of noise which is living in Bangkok.

After our updates to our lives, which makes our experiences seem more real, we wandered in the direction of the big standing Buddha. On the way, through the labyrinth which is the back alleys or soi’s which is Bangkok’s tangled streets, we ended up in conversation with a grey falung running a bookstore with his very young and pretty Thai wife or daughter. The falung was friendly enough, and informed us that the big Buddha, which he claimed to be the biggest Buddha in South East Asia, was actually east of the city, and to be reached by minibus from the Pata shopping centre.

I asked him about the slightly smaller Buddha, or the semi-biggest Buddha, but he said there was none. I knew there was one in the area, for I had gone there a couple of times, but I was confused about directions. He either knows nothing of his neighbourhood, I can only conclude, or has recently arrived to the place. The standing Buddha can only be, according to the map, a few blocks from his shop. Falung directions are always strange, but typically they bend over backwards to show you what they know and you do not.

We came back for a nap after our wander, only to wake in the gloom of the shaded windows to the midday heat under the whirring fan.

The evening was spent partially on the strip, and around the area, where the experience was mixed. A very poor man with hydrocephalus was going through trash and mumbling happily and obliviously to himself, while an old man with perhaps senility, or dementia mixed with friendliness addressed us although we had no language in common. We smiled with him, but did not accept his offer of food, since he obviously had little. He told us, I think, that he had come three days by bus, but I understood little else. Jackie thought I understood better than I did, so when he said something I told her that he was asking if she played violin. She apologized and said she could not, then I let her in on the joke.

We also stopped in the market to have Jackie look at shirts, in order that the old lady, when she thought she might not make a sale, turn nasty and tell us to leave in Thai: Bai, Bai. Jackie was upset that the old lady was mad at her but I reminded her that she was likely sick and upset about other things entirely.

In short, it was a day in which we did little, and were back in our room and asleep by 10pm. We are acclimatizing to the heat, and Jackie is enjoying the craziness more, although, like me, she tires of the constant traffic on the pedestrian ways. Amongst the crowds we are always having to move for cycles, motorcycles, cars, taxis, tuk-tuks, vans and the like. It is annoying, but part of the city.

Jan 16 - Suit Sellers Overrun the Place

After our laptop session of blog writing in the guesthouse, for we have found an outlet we can use while we eat breakfast, we hit the strip for juice before our trek to the Grand Palace. We are not so much interested in the palace itself, but in my case, I wanted to return to the religious relics market that lies behind the palace.

As it turned out, however, we stumbled into a huge weekend market that extended right around the market itself. Perhaps because this market featured relics and bric-a-brac, the possessions of falung which were stolen or left in guesthouses, and a few things that looked as though they were the less desirable antiques, it is frequented mostly by Thais. There were some falung, however, so prices could be adjusted on demand, such as when I watched a Thai guy buy some juice for 15 baht, and tried the same only to be pointed to a sign in English that indicated the same juice was 35 baht for us.

We went through enough of the market to buy some jack fruit and find a park we could sit in near the river. At the park we saw a family of three children and their mother walk through, and noticed the boy was unusually chubby. He was quite young, perhaps five or six, but it is rare for Thais to be chubby at all. I wonder if this is a growing trend here just as it is in North America.

Afterwards we retraced our steps until we found the relics market. Unfortunately much there had changed, and the tiny brass icons we had found before were gone, at least in the price and quantity I had found before. We did have a falung moment, for this was the first time that Jackie was in a place which falung do not frequent. Therefore, when we walked around extra attention was paid to our presence, if not our wish to purchase.

At one stall, we were looking through the prayer bracelets and the friend of the woman who was hanging out with her, said “Falung, Falung,” and left. I went up to her and repeated, “Falung, Falung,” which caused her to ask me if I “pood Thai”. I told her “Pom pood Thai nid noi,” which showed I spoke a little, or at least enough to understand what was going on with sly glances in the market.

We had decided to hit the internet café in midday, when it was hottest, but when we arrived we found it full. Stumbling amongst the crowded falung, we worked with our limited connectivity to update our blogs and answer some email and then went back to our room, which was not as hot, unless we are getting acclimatized.

Once we were back on the strip in the evening, we went to Franziska’s favourite restaurant, the Maikdee vegetarian place. There the server was slightly surly, but the food, with the exception of an eggplant dish, was tasty, although slightly more expensive that we have been paying. We paid 70 baht or around 2.50 Canadian for a dish.

We noticed, while we were eating, one of the suit sellers, a young guy who seemed to be tired, wasn’t doing very well with the customers. He eventually sauntered over to us and we had a long and very interesting conversation about Burma, for he is from the north. He came here to escape the troubles, he told us, and to make money.

After that hour-long conversation we sat in the front of our guesthouse, for the after dinner walk to the nearby canal district had tired us. Jackie was practically asleep on her chair by seven-thirty so we went to bed by eight, sure to rise at the crack of dawn.

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