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How to Get to Bangkok: A South East Asian Travelogue 2005 - 2006

Oct 26 - Our Flight

When Tara and I finally boarded our plane, it was very early in the morning, and we were both exhausted. Our plans had gone through without a hitch, but now we had to spend twelve hours on the plane, and then switch in Taipei to a flight to Bangkok.

In line-up, we talked to a Chinese woman in front of us, who had connections and was therefore able to take extra bags. She wasn’t complacent about it, but it was hard to tell how the connections worked. We also talked to a man behind us, who supposedly had a Thai “girlfriend.” Smirking, he told us that was the best way to learn Thai. We began the obligatory discussion about how some countries pursue a foreign policy of diplomacy, economic pressure, war and bombing and after that he scarcely spoke to us.

On the plane, we tried chatting with the primarily Filipino people around us, slept, ate the weird airline food, and then stumbled through our connection in Taipei. Once on the plane to Taipei, we were served an even stranger meal: Tara’s dessert(?) was a wiggly upturned viscous substance, and my main course sweet potato with soft rice.

In the Taipei terminal, we spoke with another man who was chatting with people on our plane and initially seemed friendly enough. He told us about trying to sneak democracy and Christianity into Burma ten years earlier. He’d been following the vision of a Christian man who claimed to know what was best for Burma and was prepared to risk people’s lives for it. I said that I think that one of the problems with us in the west is that we think we know what is best for everyone. We might want to mind our own business, I suggested. The world could use less of our style of democracy, since that is why they are poor now. As we conversed, I couldn’t help but wonder, is this who we’re going to meet here? We’re looking forward to meeting Thais.

Oct 27 - Bangkok

When we arrived in Bangkok, our prepared story about our respectable relationship and jobs turned out to be unnecessary. Our passports were just stamped. We picked up our packs, exchanged some Canadian cash for Thai Baht, and got a handy map from the tourist people. After they wondered aloud whether we’d been in Thailand before, I told them no and asked them where people like us regularly go. We were directed to Khao San Road, an express bus ride away for 100 Baht or three dollars Canadian. Once we were on that busy and noisy street, we sought food, for Tara was famished. Although it was hot in our pants and heavy shirts, we sat in a restaurant and ate Thai curry and rice while the street flowed around us.

By the time we were really sweating, Tara asked the servers if they knew a place to stay. They gave us a card for Marco Polo guesthouse, but as soon as we were in the street and heading in that direction, I stopped a man who looked like he had a permanent tan. He thought a moment, no doubt remembering his own arrival, and then walked us to Peachy Guest House, where we found cheaper rates and reasonably decent rooms. We are paying 160 Baht, or 4.80 Canadian for a double occupancy room, with a fan and shared bathrooms. We showered and crashed almost immediately, even though it was merely seven in the evening or so, and slept like logs in a clear-cut.

Oct 28 - A Tour of Wats

We woke considerably refreshed, and went out for 100B worth of pancakes at a local restaurant. Food here is cheap. While we were walking around the neighbourhood we were approached by a man who we only gradually discovered must work for the taxi drivers driving the three wheeled taxis, or tuk-tuks. That was the beginning of our first adventure in Bangkok.

He gave us many apparently helpful suggestions about the city and advised us about what we should see. Then he beckoned to a tuk-tuk driver and, after asking if we knew Thai, quickly explained what we were interested in although we couldn’t understand a word. As far as I could tell at the time, the scam worked this way. He told us that the driver’s gas is subsidized by the government, so their travel time is free, especially because today was a holiday. They make their money from the fare, which the government keeps cheap in order to encourage tourism. Then they take tourists to clothing and gem and jewellery shops to pretend to buy, and no doubt many of them buy something, and the driver theoretically gets a coupon which ensures their commission.

We negotiated the fare down to 20B and then our driver took us to the sitting Buddha, or black Buddha, where we met a guy who told us some cursory history, and then we were on our way to a place selling suits. We looked over their wares, feeling like posers. After another temple with a huge, fifty metre standing Buddha, we were taken to a jewellery store where we were encouraged to pretend to be interested. We looked around, but when our driver immediately suggested another shop, we told him no and reminded him of the original agreement. He insisted that we suddenly owed him 200B. I told him to forget it.

We denied him again when he drove to another shop and instead we insisted on the Marble Temple. When we arrived, he claimed it was closed, which was a lie for we could see people milling around, but he didn’t even slow down. Then he took us to the Golden Mount, where he told us, through sign language, that we had five minutes. We climbed the mountain, which gives as great view of the city, and gained free entrance by virtue of not noticing the 10B admission charge. There we met an Italian guy, who allowed me to practice my Spanish and him his English. I was relieved to see I understood almost everything he said.

By the time we were back down the mountain, our tuk-tuk driver was gone and we drifted around for a while amongst the others, who insisted they could drive us to Khao San Road for 200B and then 100B, or for 50B, but that we’d have to visit a merchant. Using our map, we finally walked back to our hostel, which wasn’t any more than ten minutes’ walk away.

We survived the scamming fairly well, although we felt bad we hadn’t given the scammer driver his 20B. We were to find out later how the scam actually worked and we even met a few people who’d been taken in.

Oct 29 - The Giant Swing

We both woke at 3:30am the next morning, although we felt weird about it, and after just hanging around chatting, we went out for breakfast, then strolled around all day, following names on our map that looked interesting enough to visit.

We walked past the Giant Swing on our trip to look for a TAT, or Thailand tourism authority. The swing apparently exists to perform the part in some festival. They mound rice on the swing and then set it into motion. This blesses the rice, or improved the harvest for another year. The tourist information office proved to be impossible to find, although we were able to attend a festival at a park which seemed to be associated with a local school.

If Bangkok is any indication, Thailand is a place of extremes. The temperature is sweat-dripping hot and combined with the humidity, ensures you are dripping right after a shower. Also, the blatting of tuk-tuks, blaring of horns and rattle or trucks and buses make a cacophony that blankets the city. When we cut through markets we saw pieces of fish alongside strange fruits and more than once we coughed at chilies being scorched in a wok. The air is heavy and hangs over the huge city, keeping the noise below the clouds, as around us millions of people rush to and fro in their own busy day.

 

Oct 30 - Khao San Road

We slept early again, and then went on a tour of the national museum. That took most of the day and made us both tired. It was mostly concerned with largely stone and broken images of the Buddha, weapons from a bygone era, and many displays of texts and tools that were difficult to tell the purpose of. Tara’s been buying water for 5B a bottle, but I’ve been drinking out of the local water system, which apparently even the locals don’t do, so at the museum I was happy to get some free water there to add to my supply. Another highlight was our first glimpse of a western toilet, a low porcelain bowl sitting on a slightly raised shelf and flushed by water poured from dippers.

We have mainly be orienting ourselves to the city and drinking on the sights and smells of Bangkok. We spent the evening wandering the strip, as we call it, which is Khao San Road where all the backpackers go. At night it is hopping and crowded with backpackers and locals who want to sell something or just be seen. Collections of carts sell everything from crepes with banana to sliced fruit, shirts and keychains. Mixed in the crowd are women who don’t look Thai and are dressed in brightly coloured outfits. They usually are selling goods from a tray they carry and they make a frog-like chirp with carved wooden frogs that they stroke with a stick along their ridged back. Many of the backpackers strolling and drinking in the many bars are young, although we saw a few suspect couples, old white guys with pretty young Thai women. Strange.

Oct 31 - Seeing Sak

We decided to go to the train station and get real info, instead of the drivel we were being fed by ticket agencies, and then try to find Sak at Chulalongkorn University. Sak is my friend from Canada, where he studied at my university. He’s now a professor here. I had sent him emails over the years, threatening that I was going to come, and now I am here.

Outside the railway station, which was a long hot walk, we ran into tourism people who at first seemed to be legitimate, but when we went to the TAT, or tourist information they recommended, we found they were just fronts for another fake ticket agency. We went inside, drank the bottled water they offered, then just kind of joked around and tried to get information. I told the woman who dealt with us that I would come back, but when we left to go to the train station, we found a real TAT, finally. Although the man behind the counter was brusque, we got a map of Thailand and a train schedule.

We sat in the middle of the crowded station, which reminded me of Grand Central Station in New York, and looked at our map and debated enough to get some more questions for the TAT. Then we went to the university which proved to be huge and difficult to make our way around. Although classes are ostensibly taught in English, the student’s knowledge of the language is rudimentary, to say the least, as we found when we asked friendly students questions about the location of Sak’s building.

We found a guy who looked like a graduate student, and he advised where the building was. When we asked some information people whose English was excellent at another building, they told us more exactly.

The guard at the building pointed us to the sixth floor and some graduate students told us which office was Sak’s. Disappointedly, he wasn’t around, for I looked forward to the look on his face when we arrived. We were in the process of leaving a note when Sak arrived, having come back from lunch with his Canadian advisor, who teaches part time in Bangkok.

Sak invited us out for lunch, where he bought us tasty snacks. It was great to catch up with him after nearly ten years; he is so friendly and genuine. He gave us some information about the language, which added to my confusion, and we told him about the tuk-tuks. He was surprised, and said the government does not subsidise them, but rather they are paid by the shops where they insisted on taking us.

He flagged a tuk-tuk, or sarmlor [sarm 3, lor wheel] to take us home and rejected the guy’s original proposal of what sounded like a 100B in order to ask another one behind him who, sensing tourist money, had pulled in like a shark. He bargained for 60B to go home, which would be less than a dollar each for a three hour walk, or twenty-five minute ride home. Because Sak was firm about how we didn’t want to visit any shops we were driven straight home. We immediately went out to the strip to pick up Tara’s laundry, which was washed for 35B a kilo, or three dollars a wash. I’m doing mine in the sink for free, for it dries quickly in our room’s window and I’d rather avoid the hassle of waiting for it to be done.

On the strip we paused to watch some fundamentalist yelling at the crowd to repent. He was red-faced with expostulation about how the people on the strip were all going to hell, so I took a picture. That made a young Australian smile, so we approached him and found he was eager to talk. At nineteen years old he was becoming lonely with all the solitary travelling. Like us, he’d been in Thailand for just a few days, although when he’d been approached by the tuk-tuk drivers and driven around to the shops, he’d bought a ring. We commiserated, but said little when he claimed that he could make a lot of money selling the ring back home. It sounded more like sales talk than fact. I think he just had a hard time admitting that he’d been scammed.

The conversation went better when we were comparing notes on Bangkok, but when our conversation drifted onto the topic of racism in Australia, he told us they hate the Chinese because there are so many of them. Australia should be for Australians, he said definitively. His attitude toward Aborigines was similar strangely, but that inspired him to tell us that the Aborigines, were—although he was careful to exclude the few he knew from this stereotype—generally resentful. I told him I guessed they had something to be resentful about and he agreed.

The conversation rapidly descended from that point. He decided he should describe a pad pong show, or sex show, that he’d attended, where local women put various objects in their vagina. The description was quite gross and I was uncertain how he thought Tara would benefit from this. In a similar vein, he told us, from his perspective as a nineteen year old who’d “done the vegetarian” thing, about animal rights. We realised the conversation was spiraling so we went our separate ways. For our own part, we went to a cafe and street vendors of fried banana pancakes and fruit, and a taro/yam/rice dinner.

Nov 1 - The Movies

Today we had meant to go to the floating market in the west of the city, but we only made it to our first stop, the Cineplex, where we watched a Thai movie, Puen Sa Nit, or as I translate it, friend or girlfriend.

The advertisements, which were considerable before the movie started, were interesting. For instance, at least two of them featured a guy going through the stages of life, which included having a wife and child, and how the product, such as Honda, was there for him all along the way.

After the commercials and the un-subtitled trailers were done, the strangest moment of all began. Another commercial began and I heard a rustling around us and looked back to see everyone was standing. I elbowed Tara, pointed behind us, and we stood as well apparently, we were giving thanks to the King while the short patriotic film played an anthem we came to associate with him. We stood as well, for it was nearly a religious experience. The King’s face is on the money, peers from billboards around town, features huge in the history, and is a reincarnation of a god, apparently. We only were to learn later how profound the respect for the King is in Thai culture.

The film, Puen Sa Nit, was a standard love story: shy boy, cute girl, love doesn’t work out, he goes away to Ko Pha Ngan, where he has accident, meets a nurse who is also cute as a button, and falls in love.

The language lesson was great, for I felt like I finally was able to get a grip, through subtitles, on how it sounds. I need to check what I wrote in the dark, but we’re getting there. If I can remember it all so far, I have twenty or so words, a beginning to language.

After the film we leisurely made our way back to the strip and tried to get food from the street vendors along the way. By the way we were stared at I would guess we were in an area that westerners, or farang, don’t go. We saw very few of them on the way, that’s for sure.

From the bridge across the river, you can see how massive and crazy Bangkok is; motorcycles are generally in the forefront of every tide of traffic and drive like crazy. People operate cell phones from motorcycles in heavy traffic and buses don’t stop to let people off; instead, the people jump when the bus slows. Luckily the traffic jams are common enough that there is always time to jump off.

After getting back I ate a lot from the street vendors, finding deep fried bananas, fresh fruit or grapefruit variety, and then finally a cafe, where we sat on the street at tables and ate fried rice with garlic.

The crowd watching is good here, and fun, although the urgency of the crowds makes me periodically wish for our trip north to Lopburi where, Sak had told us, the town was overrun with monkeys.

We saw the nineteen year old Australian again, just as he was catching his airport express, and said goodbye to him on this last venture. He was nice enough, although a bit of a boludo.

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