December 11, 2005
Sitting comfortably in a plastic chair, I waited for my food. A teen-age girl moved methodically next to the push cart, adding and stirring, saucing and spicing. I had no idea what I had just ordered, but that didn't bother me. I was on the edge of Chinatown, a district in Bangkok that seemed about as far as possible from a backpacker ghetto, feeling absolutely euphoric after a twenty six hour trip involving two buses, two flights, a crossing of the international date line, and finally a taxi ride. Chinatown wasn't on the tourist map, it seemed, as my taxi driver had to stop and ask directions twice in order to find the prominent hotel I was staying at. I had yet to see a Western face since getting off of the plane.
A steaming bowl of soup arrived at the table. Large prawns, strands of a green, bits of crab, a few rings of squid, and thin rice sticks sat in the broth. Working with spoon and chopsticks, I tore into the soup savoring each bit, each slurp. I sucked out the brains of the prawns and cracked open each bit that I could, striving to get everything out that I could. I would have flown across the Pacific just to eat this meal, I thought. My knowledge of the Thai language was limited to saying thank-you and hello, but this didn't seem to be much of a barrier to getting a good meal.
I smiled as I wandered back in to the heart of Chinatown, picking up a sack of pineapple (about half of the fruit, nicely cut up) for the equivalent of 25 cents along the way. I knew, rationally, that I was in the euphoric stage of traveling in a new land. That stage, you see, where everything is so new and so exotic that nothing bad could ever happen. Get hit on the head with a falling flower pot? Outstanding! Local color! I knew it in my head, but I didn't care in the least. I strolled through the crowded streets and alley ways of Chinatown, sweating from the heat of a day cold by Thai standards, but forty degrees warmer than I was used to. I saw few signs in English. Everything was in Mandarin or Thai. The CD shops, their wares on display on the sidewalk, had no titles or artists that I could recognize. The only Western face I could spot was my own, seen via a reflection in a tank holding live crabs for sale. I passed fruit stands, curry stands, vegetable stands, incense stands, noodle stands, fresh seafood stands, dried seafood stands. The riot of smells in the air was outdone only by the visual spectacle.
I was hunkered down over a plate of squid stir fried with chili and greens, a bowl of rice, and a large bottle of Singha beer in a sort of pseudo-restaurant with tanks of live seafood dotting the walls. I had been wandering for two hours through Chinatown before finally settling into the small place for a snack. I was hot and sweaty and was looking forward to the air conditioning back in my room at the New Empire hotel, but the prospect of freshly cooked squid was too much to pass up. As the Singha went to my head I couldn't imagine ever going back to the Pacific Northwest and the cold winter. Being outside my sphere of normal existence was part of it, as was the stunning food and graceful people. But there was more to it, I realized, as I paid and left.
Nursing a bottle of beer that I brought back with me, I pondered why I was so struck. I watched the sun go down over a large wat outside my window, knowing full well that this wasn't the normal euphoria of being at the start of a trip in a new land, where the exotic-ness takes over completely. No, it something more. A certain feeling of comfort, of acceptance, seemed to permeate the polluted air of Bangkok. I had been in the country only for a short while, yet felt completely at home here, despite my inability to communicate and the fact that I was here by myself. I had no worries about the ordinary problems that tourists encounter when they are in a new place all alone. The thick haze of Bangkok bent the light of the setting sun into a fantastic purple-orange, adding to my euphoria.
With the beer finished and the light show at an end, it was time for more ramblings through Chinatown, especially now that it was late enough for the evening markets to be in full swing. The air outside was only marginally cooler than in the afternoon, perhaps in the lower 80s, but the streets were impossibly thicker with people. The number of stalls devoted to the hawking of foods had easily tripled. Everywhere there was something to eat, either at a seat in a plastic chair at a plastic table, or taken away in a plastic bag with a wooden stick to eat with. In the midst of a vegetable market, I found a woman cooking up some noodles and, seeing my interest, she waved and me and pointed me into a chair.
A minute later a plate of rice noodles with vegetable and eggs and chili was in front of me, though only for the few moments it took to devour it. The woman was obviously pleased at the delight her simple dish gave me. My gluttony temporarily assuaged, I stepped out of the market and back into the throng along the main drag of Chinatown. I walked up the street for a while, dodging between taxis, motorcycles, seafood grills, and chili pepper vendors, trying not to be overwhelmed by the raging euphoria inside of me. A densely packed alleyway held a hovel in which I rested over a bowl of roast duck, wontons, and noodles floating in a rich broth. In an open courtyard I bought a back of chicken satay from two old women who cackled with delight when I grinned at the first bite. The sights and smells, the food and graceful women, the smiles and grins and friendly faces, all were pounding my senses, filling them up, taking them over.
Back in my hotel room with a bottle of Beer Chang, I couldn't hear the sounds of the street, cooling my overworked mind. The air conditioning cooled my body and I began to slip into a deep relaxation. I didn't want to sleep, I didn't want to let the first day pass. I fought for as long as I could to stay awake, knowing that I must lose the battle at some point. But I also knew full well that tomorrow I would still be in Thailand, and that I still had three weeks before having to go back to the cold and rain of a Pacific Northwest winter.
I blinked my eyes at the strange surroundings, not exactly sure where I was. After a few seconds I remembered all that had happened yesterday and that I was very far from home in some sort of magical land called Thailand. I showered and dressed and headed to the free breakfast provided by the hotel to its guests. It seemed somehow wrong to be drinking instant coffee and eating a fried egg, toast, and hot dog given what I had had last night. With the help of the hotel staff I managed to ring my friend Wallapak, who was marrying another friend of mine on Christmas day. Wallapak taught economics at Kasetsart University on the outskirts of Bangkok and we arranged to meet for dinner on Tuesday night, giving me two days to see some more of Bangkok before heading out to Phitsanulok and Sukhothai.
I picked up a sack of pineapple on my walk to the Hualamphong train station, where I procured a ticket on a special express diesel train to Phitsanulok on Wednesday morning. The streets were quiet in comparison to the bustle of yesterday night and the air was still moderately cool, so I decided to walk the four or five kilometers to the main tourist attractions of Bangkok: Wat Pho, the Grand Palace, and Wat Arun. Walking is, inevitably, the best way to see a new place. When the world goes by at 3 miles per hour, you have plenty of time to take everything in, to see what you want, to be on your own schedule. Despite what I had read, Bangkok seemed to be a very walkable city and, after a brief stop at a park, the hour it took me to stroll to Wat Pho flew by.
For the equivalent of 50 cents, I bought my way into Wat Pho, a large temple complex complete with a massive reclining Buddha whose dimensions were staggering. At the relatively early hour of 10 am, there were more tourists here than I thought there would be. However, almost none were of the western variety, which didn't surprise me given the gaudier attraction of the Grand Palace, just next door.
I wandered through the complex for nearly two hours, peeking into each building and trying not to miss anything, but the place, though quite historical and pretty, was dead. There wasn't the same emotional punch that the night market of Chinatown had had and I felt as if I was in a museum at home, rather than half way around the world. It wasn't that Wat Pho was boring, it was just that it didn't feel alive.
A bit hungry after my arduous morning of sightseeing and strolling and pontificating, I left the wat in search of something to have for an early lunch. Not knowing any better, I approached a stall with some chairs where a woman was making something to eat in a large mortar and had a seat. Not perplexed by my lack of Thai, the woman held up the mortar and I nodded yes. She held up a Thai bird pepper and I nodded. She held up another and I smiled and nodded, which brought forth a small laugh from her. After pounding, adding ingredients, pounding some more, adding some more, I had a plate of a sort of salad made from green papaya and spiced liberally with lime, chili, fish sauce, peanuts, tomatoes, and yard beans. I couldn't believe the explosion of flavors from the salad, which seemed a preposterous combination of sweet and sour and hot and salty. With a slab of sticky rice, I feasted, sopping up the excess juice with the rice and looking so happy that the woman came over and put some more shredded papaya on my plate. I managed to find out the name of the dish, for I had to have this again: Som tom, how I love thee.
Sufficiently fortified, I strolled about the walls of Wat Pho for a while, fending off a tour guide who assured me that the Grand Palace was closed on Mondays for a "Buddha Holiday", before making my way to the quite open Grand Palace. Large tour buses clogged the lanes and the number of tourists in the complex was larger by a factor of 20 than at Wat Pho.
Although there were far more western tourists here, the Thai easily outnumbered the farang. The day was quite hot by now and I was quickly losing the energy necessary to sight see in a crowded location. However, the feeling at the Grand Palace was much different than that at Wat Pho. The sheer numbers of people, especially the large number of Thai, gave the place a feeling of living history. Where Wat Pho was more serene, the Grand Palace was more alive in the Present.
As I contemplated a long wall of murals, a group of young Thai women approached me and in broken English asked if I would have a conversation with them. They were students at a local school and were in the process of learning my native tongue. Their teacher was clever enough to know that the best way for the students to learn to speak was to actually speak, and so sent them on a field trip to interview tourists at the Grand Palace. I happily told them that I was from America, that I was a teacher, that I was here for three weeks, and in general answered all the questions they had on the form they had gotten from their instructor. They then took a picture of me and, in return, I snapped their photograph as well. Everyone profited.
After my encounter with the girls, I looked around and noticed other groups of young Thai talking with farang and taking their picture. The practice, it seemed, was quite common. I milled about the large complex, though I was beginning to find the crowds rather less charming that I had earlier. The feeling of Thailand that I had last night was not to be found in an outdoor museum, no matter how scenic.
I found a quiet corner of the palace where a solitary water fountain sat forlornly, forsaken it seemed except for a few tired tourists and a handful of workers repairing one of the buildings. I realized that going to Wat Arun, the third of the big attractions in the area, was going to be counter productive. I had seen enough of the Thai past to satisfy the history lover in me. What intrigued me more was the living present, which meant going back to a market place.
On my way out of the Grand Palace I found that the line to see the Emerald Buddha, a famed attraction, was non-existent and popped my head in for a look at the diminutive statue, a little unsure why people found it so interesting. Outside of the Emerald Buddha, I again interviewed a group of students, but their English was worse than my Thai and the only thing I was able to communicate was that I was from America.
After exiting the palace I found myself conveniently next to a large square that housed a day market and that was conveniently next to the Chao Praya, which is the central river through Bangkok and on which river taxis operate. It was far too hot to contemplate walking back to Chinatown. Amongst the many food vendors I found a cheery looking old woman who had several bins of curry and only a single table left, the rest being crowded with Thai. Not a single farang was in the place, which I took for a good sign. I pointed to various bins, getting answers such as: Chicken. Pork. Chicken. And then I spotted something that was definitely not chicken or pork. River eel, she said. Ah, that will do nicely. I nodded and went in. Confused, the old woman followed me to the table and looked quizzically at me. Eel? Very hot! Peht peht! I nodded and smiled and she returned with a Singha and a plate of rice and curried eel. While quite tasty, it wasn't remotely hot and eel, like snake, has a long backbone, which meant that I was picking bits of bone out of my teeth for several hours.
Having nothing pressing to do with the rest of my day, I strolled through the square looking at the wares of various vendors. I eventually bought a half kilo of mangosteens and another half kilo of rambuttans, knowing quite well that they were vastly out of season, but having to have them anyways.
I found a shady tree and quickly got my face and hands sticky with their juices and created a rather large stack of peels that I discreetly dumped into a garbage bin. Although I felt significantly refreshed after my eel, beer, and fruit, and even contemplated heading to Wat Arun, I decided to stick with my plan of heading back to the teeming masses of Chinatown via the river. I wasn't exactly sure what the process was for getting a ticket, and when I wandered up to the dock I found a ticket booth. The clerk seemed to indicate that a ticket back to Chinatown was going to cost me 800 B, which seemed a bit higher than what I thought the rate should be. I asked again and got the same response. Knowing that there was no way 800 B could be the actual rate, started to leave, at which point a Thai passing by pointed and told me to buy a ticket on the boat.
The river taxi heading south pulled up and I hopped on board, along with a mass of farang and Thai. Free from the traffic of Bangkok, the river was a truly civilized way of traveling. I related the story of the 800 B to a pair of German tourists next, who found it rather funny and explained that the 800 B was to charter an entire boat for the day. The actual fare, when the collector came about, was 9 B.
At the Chinatown stop I disembarked and strolled back in the direction of the New Empire, though not for any particularly good reason, for I was hungry once again. I managed to conjure up a bowl of duck noodles and a bottle of Singha inside of an air conditioned restaurant and spent nearly an hour resting in the cool air and admiring the beauty of the Thai women. Grace personified, they seemed to move without actually moving, or at least without putting forth any more effort than was absolutely necessary. The contrast with the women back in the South Sound couldn't have been any more obvious. In the words of a friend of mine, I was becoming infatuated.
I returned to the New Empire and napped for a few hours, dreaming of Thai women and chili fried squid. It was beginning to darken outside when I awoke, which meant that soon I could descend into the chaos of a Chinatown night. As I cleaned the lens on my camera I realized that part of what I was loving in Thailand was simply the different-ness of life here. I was out of my rut at home and could spend my time doing what ever I wanted to do. Every day, every excursion was a change. But there was more to it than that. I was happier here than I had been in the Middle East or Central America. The openness of the Thai culture was something that went far beyond what I had experienced in any place outside of the Khumbu region of Nepal. How closed off my own culture at home was was never more apparent. I packed my camera bag and set out in the hot night air.
I skipped the hotel breakfast in favor of a sack of pineapple on the street and headed toward Lumpini Park. The morning commute was in full swing, with many well dressed Thai heading for the subway line or crowded onto local buses. Eschewing vehicular transport, I walked for 40 minutes to an entirely different world. From the definitely-in-a-different-country feeling of Chinatown, I entered into the Siam Square area of Bangkok, which exuded the feeling of being in any-city-in-the-world. The walk in had been pleasant enough, but now almost all the signs were in English. McDonalds, Dunkin Donuts, Burger King, Pizza Hut, fat farang, business farang, shopping farang.
I walked and walked and walked some more, stopping in at a small, hidden away wat surrounded by mega shopping malls and designer goods. Even in the wat I remembered that I was in any-city-in-the-world and couldn't completely forget that fact. However, standing on a street corner where a shrine of sorts sat, I found an interesting cultural phenomenon. As buses drove by, or taxis, or private cars, the occupants would invariable press there hands together in that universal symbol of reverence and bow as they passed. Businessmen and women on their way to a meeting of some sort would press and bow. People on the backs of motorcycles would press and bow. The only people who didn't were farang. I tried to out walk Siam Square and found myself next to a stinking river where there were two food stalls set up, where I stopped for a plate of extra spicy som tom, sticky rice, and more pineapple.
A family of farang walked by, apparently lost, and looked disgusted at the street stalls, which obviously didn't meet with their standards of hygiene. They bought some bottled water and moved, perhaps wishing to find a Jack in Box where they might get some "clean" food instead of the local fare that I was eating. I finished eating and tried to learn some new numbers from the woman who made me the som tom, but managed only to learn, again, the word for 20 baht.
I found my way back to the main street and ran in through to Lumpini Park, a large urban park in the middle of downtown Bangkok. I didn't have anything in particular to do with the rest of my day as I didn't have to meet Wallapak for another few hours. Finding an isolated park bench with a view of an artificial lake, I spent an hour and a half reading the words of D.T. Suzuki before hunger, or rather gluttony, got the better of me and I was forced out to the boundary of the park where a long line of food stalls had been set up. The local businesspeople had left their offices for the street stalls, where cooked meal of almost any variety could be had for next to nothing. This was the Thai version of fast food. McDonalds or a plate of Som Tom? Pizza Hut buffet or a plate of chicken curry? The choice was obvious to me. I settled down at one stall with a plate of mixed vegetable curry with a piece of friend chicken and rice, one of the few farang who seemed brave enough to try local cuisine. I wasn't sure what made the street stalls so scary to tourists, but there must have been something there to keep people away from what was arguably wonderful food.
Feeling perhaps a bit overfull, I bought another sack of pineapple and returned to the park for a nap by the water. I found some dry ground under a tree and lazed about, waiting for sleep to over take me. As I was drifting off, my eye lids nearly shut, I spotted something that seemed a bit out of place. Not knowing what it was specifically, I knew that there was some sort of general threat. Peering toward the water, I noticed a mouth just barely out of the water. A head appeared. Then a neck. A lizard's mouth and neck and head, and not a small one's either.
The head and neck moved about and slowly the five foot long water monitor crept stealthfully out of lake in an attempt to find a bit of lunch for itself. The local birds were a bit too watchful and the lizard, the largest I had ever seen, retreated to the water and swam further down the shoreline. While I wasn't especially worried about the monitor trying to take a bite out of my leg, I did decide that perhaps my hotel room would be a slightly better place to rest. However, the heat of the day made the idea of walking back to the New Empire slightly repulsive. Just outside of Lumpini Park was a subway stop and for a few baht got onto a train heading back to Chinatown. Looking at my fellow passengers, I realized how diverse America truly is. Less than a month ago I had ridden the train through Chicago to my mother's house in the suburbs, surrounded by East Africans, Russians, Poles, and other eastern Europeans, Chicanos, Indians, Pakastanis, and the usual conglomeration of Americans of European descent, African Americans, and Hispanics. On the subway ride I could spot Thai and a few Chinese, a handful of farang, but in general the crowd was homogeneous in a way that no major city in the US could possibly ever be.
I hopped off at Hualamphong and made my way to Wat Traimit, a large wat not far from the New Empire. Few farang as expected, but it was not dead. Indeed, the wat seemed more like a devotional place than a place for tourists. A youth basketball game was taking place next to it and people milled about making offerings and praying. The center piece to the wat was a massive golden Buddha, but I was tiring of large displays of the Buddha. It wasn't that they were not beautiful, but rather than they are just as impressive on the pages of a glossy photo-tourist book as they are in person.
The heat of the day was beginning to tire me as I strolled through the wat looking for interesting things to take pictures of. I was doing this all wrong, looking for the wrong things. I wasn't a professional photographer on some sort of assignment! I was here to learn something, to experience something, not to record images onto a bit of slide film for later enjoyment. Knowing this, I still fired a few shots of some lazy cats. Everyone likes cat photos.
I returned to the center of Chinatown and found the cafe from yesterday, where I placed an order with a stunning Thai woman for a plate of fried squid with chili and a tall beer Singha. The fried squid with chili was much different than the chili fried squid of two days ago. Deep fried with a sort of dusting of chili powder, they were just as delightful as the stir fried version I had before. I left smiling at the graceful woman and procured two bottles of Beer Chang to have back at the New Empire as I did laundry and rested.
I hadn't seen Wallapak for almost two years. "You're emaciated Willett!" she cried at me when she came out of the subway stop at Lumpini. I was only twenty pounds lighter than when she saw me last, but without a beard my face must have looked much thinner. I gave her a hug and greeted Sandra, a friend from her days at Illinois. The warm Bangkok air seemed all the more sultry as I walked into the food court at Lumpini. Not to be confused with the food court at a mall, this Thai version was a full on rock concert. Indeed, there was a lit up stage on which a rock concert was going on. Around the perimeter of the massive court were food stalls where, after buying some tickets at a central location, you could sample various dishes. We passed by the gyros and instead got a nice selection including roast duck, rice sticks with mixed seafood, a mussel omelet, pork dumplings,and rice. After powering through all of that, Sandra and I returned with a plate of small, whole fried crabs which we devoured as well in between stories of Thailand, home, and the what had been going on since we last saw each other.
Having stuffed ourselves completely, and with the hour becoming late, the ladies and I wandered back to the subway station and took trains going in opposite directions back to our respective abodes. Bangkok and Chinatown had treated me extremely well for the first few days of my trip and it was with a tinge of sadness that I thought about leaving tomorrow. But Thailand was not just Bangkok and there were new horizons to explore. Chinatown was quiet when I returned to the New Empire, though not so quiet that I couldn't score a large bottle of Beer Chang to write by.