Exploring magical Bangkok

Trip Start Nov 06, 2006
Trip End Jun 15, 2007

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Saturday, November 11, 2006

Sawadee khap! Hello! Already nearly a week has passed and again it feels like we've had lifetimes worth of experiences. Thailand is nothing short of magical - the warm, peaceful pulse of Buddhism feels like an undercurrent beneath everything here, the people are smiling, friendly, and curious, and we live like kings for next to nothing. In every neighborhood, we pass enormous Buddhist temple complexes called wats, which are ornately decorated, often painted white with shimmering glass tiles in gold, red, green, and blue. Statues of Garudas, mythical half-man half-bird creatures, sometimes stand guard outside the shrine room protecting the building or they decorate the walls beneath the steeply pitched curving roofs.

On our final evening in the Sukhumvit area, we decide to venture into the seedy night scene of Patpong, the Bangkok district famous for ping-pong shows, sex cabarets, and unfortunately, its sex tourism industry. In part, we're hoping to visit the night market here to cross off a few more travel items on our shopping list, but we're also drawn out of curiosity since we completely bypassed this part of town during our visit here six years ago. The moment we descend from the sky train station, we're besieged by vendors hawking everything from fake Rolex watches to jewelry to pirated copies of all the latest music and movies. And we're constantly pummeled with the OTHER kind of offers - "Girly show? No? You want boy show? What you like? What you want see???" Often the requests are accompanied by a visual menu of sex positions that depict what you'll see at any given show. It's a fascinating, frightening scene and I'm awash with sadness at the playful, desperate, soul-less quality here. It's so blatantly sexual without being the slightest bit sexy.

The next morning, we wake early for a long taxi ride to Khao San Road, the infamous center of the Bangkok backpacker universe, where we're hoping to locate a decent room. We take a look at several guesthouses and settle into the Baan Sabai in a spacious room with air con and private bath that costs us less than $5 per person per night. A steal! - though real budget travelers have no problem finding beds here for far less than we're paying. The change in neighborhoods comes as a shock - Khao San is jam packed with smoky bars, restaurants blaring loud music, drunken college-aged kids downing whiskey buckets, and one t-shirt vendor after another selling fake brand-name duds like Vans and Adidas. This scene would probably be much more attractive if we had been traveling through rough terrain for awhile, but since we're fresh off the plane, it's mostly like a transported college fraternity scene out of Anywhere, USA.

Prices are impossibly low - bottled water for 25 cents, a full American breakfast with eggs, bacon, toast and juice for $2, and a Singha beer for $1.50. We're happy that our guesthouse is on a nearby quieter street where we can escape the madness and return whenever we like to get our jolt of Western-infused insanity. One of the major advantages to this area is its close proximity to many of the fascinating cultural sights we're planning to visit, as well as the fantastic water taxi service that zips up and down the Chao Praya River which runs through the center of town.

On Wednesday, we get to the National Museum in time for the free tour at 9:30 AM. For the next 4 hours, our humble yet charming volunteer guide, Caroline, proceeds to blow our minds with her incredible wealth of knowledge about all things Thai - art, architecture, history, Buddhism, Hinduism, the monarchy, culture. We were amazed by the diversity in the museum's collection - Buddhist and Hindu sculpture and paintings, elaborate theatrical masks and costumes, musical instruments, richly made clothing and textiles, intricate lacquerware and ceramics, and gargantuan chariots and thrones covered with shimmering gold patterns, so heavy that they require hundreds of men to carry them. This was undeniably the best tour we've ever been on and a absolute must for any visitor to Thailand - a great insider's view into Thai culture and a lot of fun, too!

Later that afternoon, a woman standing outside the wat near Khao San says "You come in! Come in! Is vely lucky for you to-day!" By now we're more than a little wary of anyone trying to get us to do anything, especially if it "makes us lucky today!", but as soon as we enter, a friendly man, Mr. Wichai, starts chatting with us and gives us an introduction to the finer points of the Thai way of giving offerings to the Buddha. Once we've made our offering of lotus flower and incense, he asks, "What you do now?" and before we can answer, he says, "Ooooohhh, you vely lucky! Vely lucky! Today only day duling year when you go see standing Buddha! Is very tall - 40 meter!" He says, "I get you tuk tuk!", then stops. "How much you think tuk tuk cost, huhhh?" he asks. "First you go standing Buddha. Then you go TAT office for travel information. Then Patpong night market. Then back here. How much you think tuk tuk cost?" We mumble some high number, since this trip would take the driver at least 1-2 hours. "No! I get you for 60 baht (less than $2)! You know what you say to driver if they ask too much?" He grabs a piece of paper and writes "PAING PAI" in big letters then exclaims, "Expensive! Paing Pai - expensive!" Voila - our first impromptu Thai lesson - we now know how to say they're asking too much!

Armed with our new knowledge, we're whisked away by tuk tuk to a completely unfamiliar part of this very large city. Suddenly our 15-year-old driver dashes through an oncoming wall of traffic, turns down what looks like an alley, and before us appears a gigantic shimmering golden Buddha lit up against the dark night sky. It's breathtaking. Once again we're the only farang around - unbelievable since this is an incredible sight. We pay our respects, make a small donation, then zoom off to our next destination, which turns out to be no help whatsoever, but it's all a huge adventure by now and we never know where we're going from moment to moment anymore and we're having the time of our lives so none of it matters. It's a crazy game we play, always trying to stay in control, and it's quickly becoming obvious that the more we loosen our grip the better the ride - so off we go!

In the following days, it's one zany adventure after another. We plan to visit the Grand Palace, but when we arrive it's closed for a visit by the royal family and yet another friendly in-the-know Thai whooshes us off in a tuk tuk for more spontaneous discoveries. By now we've discovered the secret to our cheap tuk tuk rides - any time the driver takes you to a government sanctioned tourist office (TAT) or a tailor, they receive a coupon for 5 litres of free gas! So, now that we exclaim "NO SHOPPING!" when negotiating with the driver and know how to say "Expensive!" when they try to rip us off, we pay the same price as before but avoid the random trips to the tailor!

When we return to visit the palace it's too late to spend the time to see it properly, and as we're walking through the park to return to our guesthouse, we wander across three huge open-ended trucks. I notice big gray humps sticking up above the back - elephants! Within a few minutes, a band of people begins to busily unload equipment, the backs of the trucks pop open, and massive elephants begin to slowly emerge backwards down ramps. A troop of mahouts, the boys and men who train the elephants, all dressed in bright red and yellow uniforms, begins to adorn the elephants with headdresses and ornate decorations, and ivory-colored caps are pushed onto the stumps where the elephants' trunks once were before they were sawed off long ago. A crowd of excited Thais starts to gather around, and soon the mahouts are all sitting atop their animals' huge heads. I reach out and a long gray muscular trunk stretches out to sniff and feel my hand. I find myself drawn in by these powerful, intelligent animals with their eyes that look deeply back at me, and I'm ashamed when I look around this manicured park and think of how very far away this carnival atmosphere is from the habitat they once roamed freely. Soon the animals line up, stop traffic to cross a busy street, and then assemble in front of a nearby spirit house shrine that's surrounded by a crowd of people. A table in front of the shrine is covered with elaborate and exotic offerings - fresh fruits, candles, beer, smoking incense, a whole bird, and the head of a large pig! The crowd goes silent, the elephants stand completely still, and a short offering ceremony is performed.

Soon we've crossed back to the park, and for the next hour the elephants and their mahouts put on an incredible show. Standing on the backs of running elephants, riders shoot arrows and hit the center of a target. Elephants wrestle one another, use their powerful trunks like clubs to knock down oncoming human attackers, and trample a dummy on command in an awesome display of traditional elephant warfare skills. The elephants parade together in a choreographed group from one side of the field to another, stand on their front legs, and even crawl along the ground on their elbows and knees, and finally conclude the show by trumpeting on command in a massive group then bow to the crowd with their front legs. It was unforgettable, and we felt so lucky to have just happened across this! I'm not oblivious to the important and emotional issues that swirl around how these beautiful animals are treated and trained, but it also felt like we were experiencing an important part of Thailand's cultural history, so I'll leave the debate for another time and place.

We've met lots of interesting people along the way, and there have been so many more fascinating experiences, but they're too many to mention so I'll end for now.

Sending everyone back home wishes for peace and happiness!
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