Quick Visit to Bangkok - The Sleeping Giant
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I ended up at the Phiman Waterview Hostel in a dorm bed for 200 baht (a little less than $7 CAD) for the night. So the taxi ride in ended up costing me twice the amount that the bed did – funny that. It was about 2 AM and all I could think of was some sustenance as I’d went largely without having been stuck in an airport for most of the day and down to my last few pesos. A nice young Japanese chap staying at the Phiman, who said he was a stuntman working on a movie shoot in town, offered to take me out on the street to try and find some noodles or anything. He also claimed to speak English but that’s an embellishment really. Under normal circumstances you would have to try to not find food in Bangkok at any time around the clock but the curfew really did shut everything down. Strictly speaking we weren’t supposed to be out on the street at all but we ventured only a couple of blocks and managed to find a small hole in the wall type of variety store and secured a couple packs of dried noodles and some beer. The curfew was really meant for locals and the Japanese chap told me that some soldiers caught him out on the street after curfew a few days before and all they did was ask him for some ID and to explain what he was up to, which was nothing really. It was really odd to see Bangkok in this sorry state. Having been to Bangkok twice before and knowing how the city just pulses with energy 24/7/365, it was really quite eerie and unsettling to see it completely and utterly asleep. The dry package noodles which cost a whopping 7 baht ($0.25 CAD) were deadly spicy and delicious. So happy to be back in Thailand. We sat around and watched some YouTube clips of skirmishes in Bangkok between the Red Shirt protestors and government forces. It was strange to see people in arms and being shot at in areas that I recognized to under normal circumstances to be calm and safe.
For those who don’t know much about the current state of affairs in Thailand the quick synopses is that a dispute between the Red Shirt protestors who are comprised of and represent the poor, lower-middle class Thai person have been in increasing disagreement in the last few months with the current government. The Red Shirts say that the current government was established illegally and they support the previous Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra of the Thai Rak Thai Party. He was PM until 2006 when he was deposed in a bloodless military coup. Since then he’s been living abroad but convicted in absentia of a conflict of interest affair. The Red Shirts say that the current PM, Abhisit Vejjajiva has to go and they won’t rest until he sets a date for a new, democratic election. This is very much the simplified version of the story of course. Regardless of the details, the Red Shirts have been leading mob-style, sometimes violent protests, and bombings in central and central-east Bangkok have been attributed to them as well. I drove by the site today in a taxi where the largest bombing took place, at the Central World Plaza, Bangkok’s largest shopping centre. Sure enough, the bombing had completely obliterated a large section of the 5 level plaza. The site looked like something from a war zone. Critics of the government’s reaction to these incidents say that the military has been responding with an extremely heavy hand and to date more than 85 people have died in the conflict here in Bangkok, almost all of them Red Shirts. As a result of all of this, a mandatory curfew was put into place in Bangkok only a few days before I was set to arrive. Great timing for me! But here I am safe and sound and it really turns out that the curfew and the government’s reaction has managed to quell the fire entirely. On top of that, there are only a few specific trouble spots that you have to stay away from and it’s easy enough to do, namely Lumphini Park where the Red Shirt headquarters are. Ironically, allot of the people that the Red Shirts are trying to represent, such as the poorer people who run night time food stalls and the like, would love to strangle each and every last Red Shirt as the curfew imposed as a result of their actions has completely shut down their night time business. It’s a considerable loss of income for these people who so desperately need it.
During the day Bangkok still buzzes with energy that rivals any of the world’s largest cities but by Bangkok’s standard it is slightly subdued. It’s nice to be back in this city but it would be even better under different circumstances. As I navigate my way through the streets and sois (side streets) of the backpacker ghetto in Bangalampoo, I feel reasonably well oriented. I manage the streets with relative ease, and a host of little hints come back to me surprisingly quick; the travel agency at the end of the street which has the most unbeatable prices on visas and bus transfers in the area, the little noodle shop where a tout tried (and almost succeeded) in seducing me into a card playing scam, and the book shop at the end of Khao San Road which has a brilliant collection of novels and non-fiction, not to mention the mandatory collection of Lonely Planet guides. It’s nice to be so relatively familiar with a place that is so completely far from where I live.
It’s undeniable that the food selection is world class and although I recall how great it was during my last visit, I’m still stunned by the overwhelming selection of top notch nosh that’s available seemingly everywhere. I had a perfect vegetarian yellow curry with rice for no more than 75 baht ($2.50 CAD). The street stand at the end of Rambuttri Thanon (Street) where I’m staying boasts a staggering selection of familiar and foreign foods; yellow, red and green curries, spicy cabbage salads, whole fishes soaked in a heavy, salty sauce topped with chopped vegetables, among other lesser known exotic dishes. All of these dishes are offered at a price between 30-50 baht each ($1-$1.65) and you would normally get two items to constitute a proper meal. So for anywhere from $2-$3.50 CAD or so you’re dining in relative luxury. That may be an overstatement, but my standard this is some of the best food available. Noodle soups with a healthy broth, dumplings, shredded pork, chicken or beef and crunchy bits are available every 20 feet for no more than $1 CAD. After suffering through the deadly culinary experience that is the Philippines, I’m stoked to be back in Thailand where I can dine for 1/3 of the cost at 10 times the quality.
I’m in town for business so to speak – to arrange my visa for entry to Vietnam and buy the necessary bus tickets to get there. I head down to the travel shop and due to awkward timing; it turns out that the visa will take a little longer to get back in my hands as a result of a holiday that lands on the Friday of that week. When I ask what the holiday is, I’m told it’s a "Special Buddha Day" which seems ambiguous but there you go. I’m also in town to meet up with a friend that I used to work with, the lovely Marie France Gatton, a feisty and hilarious lady of Quebecois origin. She’s a lovely girl and has been likened to a Chihuahua by some – she’s very short, quite tiny altogether and often has that Quebecois bark when she speaks with authority, which is quite endearing actually. In light of how long it will take to get the visa returned and the fact that Bangkok is still under curfew, I decide to leave my passport at the travel office for processing and beat it out of town for a few days and meet up with Marie France upon my return. For better or for worse, I quickly move onto the nearby beach town of Pattaya, only 2 hours bus ride away.
Pattaya is unremarkable in most ways except for this; it is the girlie bar haven of Thailand. Although I was told there was allot of girlie bars there, I really didn’t know how over the top it is. I actually visited Pattaya as a day trip during my last visit and didn’t even see the girlie bars there as I just hung out at the beach all day. So what I remember of the place doesn’t match up with the more in depth experience of staying there for three nights. I remember the beach being pretty decent, but in reality it doesn’t qualify as anything more than acceptable. It’s really just a patch of sand that extends twenty-odd feet from the seawall to the shoreline and is not particularly nice or well taken care of. It’s too scummy by my standard to actually swim in although I do remember I did so when I was here last. Maybe it’s gotten worse or maybe I was half-cooked that day, but today swimming is not an option here. To top it off the beach front walkway is lined with ladies of the night, perhaps as many as 500 or more of them at any time past 9 PM, so walking down there is an unpleasant experience to say the least. The beach strip leads to Walking Street, which has a glitzy gateway entrance. There’ no mistaking when you enter Walking Street.
Walking Street is basically like a bizarre, adult version of Disney Land. The Girlie Bars stretch down the street as far as the eye can see and wading through this madness takes quite a bit of time and patience. Neon assaults your senses and girlies in skimpy hooker-wear egg you on to come into their bar for a happy hour special. Walking Street has been described as “Patpong on Steroids”, Patpong being yet another girlie bar district found in Bangkok that has somewhat mellowed over the years. I’m amazed to see families cruising down here, Dad, Mom and kids under 12 years of age, even babies on strollers. IT seems like an odd place for a family vacation in my mind. It’s funny and somewhat entertaining for all of about one hour and then I shuffle off to a quiet bar on a side street for a casual pint or two.
I spend most of my time in Pattaya sleeping in and finding decent local food which isn’t too hard to do. The rest of the afternoon is spent catching up on my blogs, reading books and basically just wasting time while waiting for my visa back in Bangkok to be prepared. On that Saturday I catch the BBC News which says that the curfew in Bangkok has finally been lifted and everyone is very glad to hear it. That means I can return to Bangkok which I do promptly on Monday morning.
A more detailed blog on Thailand will come in the future as I’m already in Cambodia and heading off to Vietnam tomorrow. For a quick laugh, here is a list of items that I saw on a menu today here in Phnom Penh. They are of course a severely awkward interpretation in English:
Fried Frog with Species
Fried Bosom with Sour Cabbage
Chicken Wing III My Friend
Fried Yellow Waddle with Clueless
Cambodia is a lovely place mostly because of the people. More on that later!!! I’m off to meet a Japanese fellow who is a champion beer drinker!!