February 26, 2010

I stayed in Bangkok long enough to ride the Sky Train, see the Royal Palace and several Wats, and have a fancy dinner on the riverfront.  The last item on that list is a must for anyone visiting Bangkok.  We ordered the best Tom Kah I’ve ever had, half a pineapple full of rice and veggies, and a red, seafood curry that came in a coconut.  Top that off with a bottle of Argentine vino and you too will be saying “Thank you, Buddha.”

The Royal Palace of Thailand is only a few blocks away from Khao San (aka Western Tourist Land) and is easily reached on foot.  Be prepared though; walking means having to repeat the phrase “no thanks” indefinitely, in many various and experimental forms.  The Khao San area is crawling with tuk-tuk drivers and a menagerie of aggressive salesmen, many of whom are out to scam you.  Eventually, it will drive even the most serene monk to fits of insanity.  You can either float up to a cloud in your mind and think happy thoughts (and try to stay there), or you can have some fun with it.  Me, I speak Spanish pretty well, so I pretended to be a Spanish Speaker who didn’t understand English.  It was fun, but I quickly learned that talking to them, no matter what language, only encourages them. One guy actually got on his tuk-tuk and drove after me after two encounters of “No, gracias.  No hablo inglés.”  Over a week later at the Beijing airport, I was trading stories with some friends from orientation (we unexpectedly ended up on the same flight from Bangkok to Seoul), and I recommend Andrew’s method.

Andrew’s Method is to reply to tuk-tuk drivers and scammers with the craziest thing that pops into your head.  For example, “I like dead cats.”  This is great because it’s funny to you, but the scammer will most likely have no idea what you are talking about.  Not that it will deter them, that takes more work.  Here’s a sample of the conversation Andrew had:

Tuk-tuk Driver: Hey man, tuk-tuk.  You want ride?

Andrew: I like dead cats.

Tuk-tuk Driver: Ok, let’s go.  I know good temple.  You know Wat Pho?

Andrew: Can you show me some dead cats.

Tuk-tuk Driver: I take you Wat Pho 50 baht.

Andrew: I’m going to kill you when nobody’s looking.

Tuk-tuk Driver: OK, let’s go.  Come on.

As you can see…Tuk-tuk drivers don’t really listen to what you say.  They just repeat a sales pitch and if your mouth is moving it means money.  Sometimes they will put their arm around you or take your hand and try to help you up onto the tuk-tuk before you’ve even agreed on a deal.  On my last day in Thailand, a guy reached out to shake my hand, and didn’t let go until I yanked it away.  Personally, I was more impressed with the children at Angkor who could recite the name of the past five heads of state, the names of all states/counties/provinces, and the exact population number of any country the tourist could be from .  The point is: either say “no thanks” fifty gazillion times, or have some fun.  One time I dodged a knick knack seller by giving an English lesson.  She offered me a wooden frog: I said, “This is a frog.”  She put her hat on my head and held out her hand for payment: “This is a hat,” I said.

Personally, I wouldn’t recommend staying on Khao San for more than a few days.  It is the Bangkok version of Itaewon minus the G.I.s.

The furthest I got into the central city was to a place called Siam Square.  It’s a huge shopping mall, but was a welcome relief after two days on Khao San.  Unlike Phnom Penh, Bangkok is a glitzy modern metropolis in the central area.  The traffic is everything you’ve heard and worse – try red lights that count down from 120 – but it’s a place that I would like to return to and properly explore.  You get a feeling in Bangkok, that this is a lively place where the surrounding cultures are colliding and fusing to churn out all sorts of goodies.  It reminded me a bit of Brazil.

Back to topic: I went out to Siam Square to ride the Sky Train.  Not only does Bangkok have highways and subways, but they built an above ground train system as another desperate bid to ease commuters’ daily thoughts of suicide.  I’m afraid to say that it’s not quite the “ultramodern” marvel that Lonely Planet made it out to be – and I’m quoting the Yellow Bible here – but it was nevertheless…cool.  The train travels about 60 feet above the roads on a thick gray concrete support.  I was expecting a monorail or something flashy, but it’s really just an above-ground subway.  Beats the hell out of taking a cab though.

The Royal Palace of Phnom Penh, a beautiful collection of white and yellow sandstone buildings, was one of my favorite sights in that city.  But the Palace in Bangkok goes above and beyond.  While not as classy in some respects, it is far bigger.  The temple area sports an enormous blue, yellow, red, and gold pavilion, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, as well as a 50 ft. Golden Chedi (a stupa-like spire), a temple housing ancient Buddhist scriptures, and a model of Angkor Wat that is three-times the size of the one in Phnom Penh (and Angkor is not even IN Thailand).  The Temple has what appear to be golden, gem-encrusted pillars all around, but closer inspection reveals them to be covered in gold paint and small pieces of colored glass.  Not really sure how that came about.  Fortunately, the rest of the building was more tastefully done than a Chinese restaurant in Gainesville.

Inside the temple, the floor is covered in red carpet, the ceiling and walls are an enormous painting of events from Thai and Buddhist lore, and the jade statue of Gautama sits on top of a high, golden, extravagantly decorated altar.  A sort-of triple lamp shade hangs over his head, and he is dressed in one of three seasonal outfits: Dry Season, Rainy Season, and Winter.  The King changes his clothes at the start of each new season.  During my visit, he was robed-up for winter and only his head was visible.  Winter my ass, it was over 70 degrees outside.  It does not count as winter if you can sunbathe.  In any case, that should give you a good idea of what the hottest temperatures are like.

The actual Royal Palace – the mansion where the king lived – was quite British actually.  King Chulalongkorn, following his father’s advice to westernize, built a white Victorian palace with tall iron-and-gold gates, lampposts,  gleaming Thai spires, and one hell of a balcony.  If I remember correctly, there was a large clock as well.  It may have been posing much, but King Rama V kept his country independent when neighboring countries all around were singing the colony blues.  Interesting story I heard about Rama V: he went all over the world courting the leaders and marrying the most highly connected women he could find.  With all the political connections he developed – by being the biggest pimp of the century – he kept Thailand from going under the colonial sway.  Cheers to the King.

Which brings me to the current monarch, Bhumibol Adulyadej.  It is a capital offense to speak ill of the king in Thailand, but luckily for me I’ve got no criticism.  Rama IX is one of the most popular monarchs ever due to his numerous humanitarian projects.  He also frequently runs about in disguise to avoid the human tsunami that accompanies all of his official visits with the public.  There is an anecdote where he was riding on the subway in disguise, when suddenly everyone around him bowed down with a high-brow wai (palms together against the forehead).  He looked up and saw his daughter, the princess, and immediately bowed before her to avoid being recognized.  I always appreciate heads of state with a sense of humor.  Ask a Thai, and you’ll hear quite a bit on how much they love their king.

Another site I recommend for anyone visiting Bangkok is Wat Arun.  The monastery has a tower that gives one a great view of Bangkok – and sunsets.  Like the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, it looks very impressive from afar, but when you get up close you start noticing some cheap decorations.  My theory is that the porcelain plate craft flowers that cover Wat Arun are donations from the community, thus decorating their sanctuary inexpensively.  The majority of the structure though is sandstone and has many skillfully carved figures.

Getting to Wat Arun is a bit tricky; you have to cross the river and take a boat down.  Luckily, I had a tour guide in the form of a girl I met while hopping bars in Khao San.  Aree’s English was good enough for basic conversation, and she insisted on taking me for a temple tour.  Also, she got me there following a penny-pinching code of transportation that the shoestring writers at Lonely Planet would be proud of.  To give you an idea of how cheap this was: $1.oo = 33 baht.

First, we took a bus that cost about 20 baht per ticket.  It was hell on wheels and the seats were not made for an almost 6 foot guy, but it got us quickly over to…  a crowd of dudes on motorcycles.  I was thinking in my mind, “No, we’re not really going to…”  and that’s when Aree jumped side-saddle on the back of a bike and took off.  I had never ridden on a motorbike before, and Bangkok traffic is not where you want to try it out.  I jumped on one and held the chubby driver’s windbreaker for dear life.  It was a hairsplitting, nail-biting careen through traffic for the entire…one minute it took to get to the pier.  I felt like such a baby.

Continuing the buffet of transportation, we hopped on a ferry for 16 baht to Wat Arun.  The back seat of the boats are always reserved for monks, and the rest of humanity crowds into the interior holding onto whatever they can.  Lucky for me, the ceiling was low enough to grab onto something.

After Wat Arun, we went to see Wat Pho, which is home to a giant reclining Buddha about 6 meters high and the length of a football field.  The temple was closed, but that didn’t stop me from looking through the windows.  In the sanctuary, Aree showed me how to pray like a Buddhist, which involves some yoga-like kneeling, head-to-floor bowing, and since it’s for Buddha, you’ve got to keep your pressed palms against your forehead with the thumb knuckles fitting into that cleft at the top of your nose.  Only Buddha gets a wai this high.

We were both hungry after, so I took the lady out for dinner.  This would be the curry in the coconut dinner on the riverfront I mentioned earlier.  The next day we met for lunch at an Indian restaurant with a hilarious Bollywood action film playing on their TV.  We said goodbye and I boarded what was probably the most uncomfortable bus I’ve ever ridden on for seven hours.  More on that in my next segment because it’s almost 10 after 5, and even if I didn’t really want to go home, I’d soon be kicked out of the office.