Thailand Redux

December 9, 2006

There was something distinctly wrong with the scene. I was supposed to be sitting in a bar at SeaTac airport, nursing a double Jack on the rocks, bleary eyed from lack of sleep and grumbling about facing a long flight across the Pacific. I was supposed to have a pained look on my face from some sort of wound that I was recovering from, that I needed to recover from, that I was going to recover from in a foreign country. Instead I was sitting at my gate reading the DaVinci Code, no alcohol in my system, no wound to heal from. Aside from the no-alcohol fact, I was quite content. There was no scar, no wound, no hurt anywhere. I would say that the DaVinci Code had put a hurting on my brain from its moronic drivel, but that would be giving Dan Brown too much credit as an author. Melonie had dropped me at the airport several hours ago and, after a long wait in line to pick up my ticket, I had made my way to my gate only to find that the airport bar was quite closed and that, instead consuming fine Tennessee Whiskey, I had to content myself with an awful sandwich from Burger King.

The eleventh best selling book of all time was direct, incontrovertible proof of the general stupidity of mankind. Better to be illiterate than to be subjected to Dan Brown who, so far, was making Tom Clancy seem like Conrad, or Hesse, in comparison. I wasn't reading the book out of pleasure, but rather to fulfill an obligation. I had made a wager to a woman and had lost. It took her 14 months to complete my (at the time) favorite novel, Crime and Punishment. In return, I had to read hers. The friendly voice of EVA Airways came over the loudspeaker, calling for passengers to begin boarding, providing a relief from the putrid stylings of the hack.

"So, what do you think of The DaVinci Code," the woman asked. She meant well and smiled nicely, making small talk with her row mate on the leg from Taipei to Bangkok. I thought for a moment before deciding that politeness was a true virtue when sealed up in a metal tube 35,000 feet above the ocean. "It isn't quite to my taste," I responded. "Well, won't don't you like about it?" she pressed me. A little unsure what to do, I parried once again, stalling for time. "I prefer slightly more involved reading," I offered. "So, you're not a fan of page-turners?". I was beginning to suspect that she might feel the same way about the book, if I can insult the term book by ascribing that property to the writing under discussion, that I did. And so I left my fortifications and sallied forth, beginning a five minute, very dry and academic discussion on the faults of the text, both factually and stylistically, ending with a comparison between Brown and a sack of rocks. "Actually, its my favorite book," she politely asserted. I decided that a nap was appropriate.

Survarnabhumi airport was bustling, and I was weary after the long flight across the water. This was the promised new airport, though it looked much like the old one that I had flown into last year. A long walk to immigration, a quick stamp in my passport, and I was out. Mike stood holding a pack, looking as weary as I did. He had returned from Chiang Mai, in the north, just an hour or so earlier. The blast of heat as we exited the airport for the taxi stand outside was not unwelcome. The thick, polluted air of Bangkok was not unwelcome. It smelled of something real, tangible. The air of the airport, of the airplanes, was sanitized, fake, even if it didn't make my throat itch. I knew that my affection for the polluted air of Bangkok was just the normal euphoria that a tourist feels after reaching a long sought after country, but that didn't stop me from smiling.

Mike is a professor at the University of British Columbia, but has been on sabbatical since April of 2006, spending most of that time with his wife, Wallapak, in Bangkok, where she is also a professor. They were married last Christmas day in a traditional Thai ceremony that went on for three days and included planting sugarcane and bananas and something translated as the pouring of the lustful water, which ended up being much more innocent than the name indicated. As we rolled through the light Sunday traffic, Mike pointed up to the high rise where they were living and said "See, there is the elephant." I looked for said creature, but saw only a big, white building of about 30 stories. Maybe I was jet lagged.

Wandering through Chatuchak market, Mike and I hardly stood out. Boasting thousands upon thousands of stalls, the weekend market a short bus ride from the apartment draws large numbers of tourists. Euros and Aussies women in bikini tops and short shorts mingled with Thai women in long skirts and blouses. Old, fat, bald, and sunburned men waddled about, struggling to get through the dense crowd. Dreadlocked, bearded men in fishermen's pants haggled with vendors over a few baht, trying to stretch their time off as far as possible. I ate squid on a stick.

While Chatuchak was crowded, the evening brought a pleasantly warm evening and no crowds. Down the street from the apartment was a collection of food stalls run by men who knew how to cook. Mike and I were the only pale faces scarfing down the collection of Isan style dishes that formed the speciality of this particular night market. I stuffed myself with delights that would have embarrassed the best Thai restaurant at home. Pondering through the collection of places that I'd eaten within a fifteen mile radius of my apartment in Lakewood, only a high class French joint could come close to the food that I enjoyed while seated at a plastic table, drinking water from a metal dip cup and swilling beer Leo from time to time. Why couldn't people, myself included, cook catfish like this at home? Sweet, moist, perfect. It seemed that the only thing done was to gut the fish, plop it on a charcoal grill, and serve it with some dipping sauces. So simple, yet so perfect. Perhaps it was the normal euphoria of a meal in a foreign land. But, I suspect not, as I can taste that catfish even now.

I was lost. My shirt was soaked through with sweat and droplets ran down my face, landing on the edge of the plate holding a pile of rice and graprao moo. The run down cafe hand fans blowing around and was sheltered from the sun that had roasted me on my wanderings from the apartment. My plan had seemed simple: Walk out and get something to eat, catch a bus toward the Grand Palace area. I didn't especially want to go to the Grand Palace, but Mike's bus map indicated that there was a bus that ran all the way there and I knew that there would be interesting things afoot on the street if I just looked for them. The woman who ran the cafe, little more than a collection of plastic tables and chairs with a propane fired wok, seemed curious as to what I could be doing in this part of town, far from any tourist attractions. I continued on my lunch.

My stroll from the apartment brought me down the main street and eventually onto a big, sub-highway that moved parallel to the elevated super highway. There was little out here to interest someone from a foreign land. The corporate offices of Royal Thai Airways. Auto repair shops. Plastic flower vendors. I'd stop and rest from the sun and the heat on benches in the shade and wonder where I could be. For someone who has navigated their way through the wilds of North America, I seem to have a talent for getting lost in big cities. After two hours of walking I found myself in a more residential neighborhood and popped into the cafe to eat again, cool off, and try to figure out what to do.

Thirty minutes inside the cafe seemed to do the trick and I left feeling refreshed again, with an especially clever plan of action: I stepped outside and hailed a taxi. My Thai was only good enough to ask the driver to take me to Hualongphong, the main train station, on the edge of Chinatown. I knew I wasn't anywhere near Chinatown. The driver seemed somewhat confused by this, but took off anyway, driving up the street, made a left, and pulled to a stop next to subway station. After paying him a dollar, I took a look at the map at the station and realized where I was, and that I should have tipped him more. I was a thirty minute subway ride from Hualongphong, but the taxi ride would have taken more than an hour in Bangkok traffic. The driver gave up a hefty fare just to be nice.

Chinatown was a solid mass of humanity, but I loved it. I had stayed here last winter, far from the hoards of backpackers that flee to the familiar environs of Khao San road, where they can enjoy hamburgers and pubs that show re-runs of Friends. I had explored the backalleys and markets of Chinatown extensively the last time I was here, and had not the time to see much of it before meeting Mike at the Lumpini Night Market in 90 minutes. So rather than wander, much, I headed to my favorite restaurant in Bangkok, despite a lack of hunger. I went for gluttony.

The cafe had tanks of seafood outside on the street, and they were putting more out in preparation for a lively night. Past the sliding glass doors the interior consisted of the usual plastic tables and chairs, a television playing Thai soap operas on the wall, and a stand up cooler with vegetables and beer. The joint made some of the best seafood dishes I'd ever had, which for Thailand says a lot. Being in Chinatown, the cooks whip up dishes that are uniquely blended with Thai and Chinese culinary culture. Every place in Chinatown cooks like this. This joint does it better than most. I settled on curried fish cakes with chilis and greens, along with rice and several Singhas.

After a trip to Japan when I was too young to appreciate it, I had a phobia of fishcakes. I had assumed that they had to be jelly like and taste only of rotten fish, coming in a dyed array of colors, from white to pink to neon green. In Thailand I found tod mon plaa, which was nothing like a Japanese fishcake. Pureed fish, mixed with chili, basil, and other seasonings, was formed into mini pancakes about a quarter inch thick and the size of a silver dollar and then deep friend until crispy on the outside, with a uniquely succulent texture inside. They squeak when you eat them. These were sold in bags with fried basil and lime leaves on the street as a snack. They taste nothing like fish, only like Thailand. However, the fishcakes that came to me were rather different. Equally tasty, they were cubical, seasoned differently, and denser than tod mon. They had been fried, then stir fried with a mass amount of chilis and garlic and Chinese greens, then a peanut-curry sauce, based off of coconut milk, was made around them and all was served piping hot with an extra does of mild chilis on top. No Thai restaurant I'd been to in the West could equal it, where this joint wouldn't even have been allowed to operate due to paranoid health issues. I paid the equivalent of $7 for my meal, including beers. A royal sum in Thailand, where you can eat well for 50 cents, but worth every baht.

I made a few passes through the various alleys of Chinatown, then headed, with a sack of pineapple in hand, back to Hualongphong, where I caught the subway two stops to Silom, on the far side of Lumpini Park. The subway, or MRT, combined with the Skytrain, or BTS, makes getting around Bangkok rather easy. Modern, efficient, air conditioned, and simply to use, even without a knowledge of Thai, they can move you about the city regardless of whether the surface traffic is in gridlock or not. As Bangkok is almost always gridlocked, this is rather nice. Soon, the Skytrain will run out to the airport, thus making travel to Thailand even easier.

I needed to walk off my meal, which was portioned for two, before joining Mike at the night market, and Lumpini makes an excellent walking location in heavy density Bangkok. With made made lakes, open spaces, and group exercise area, it is where Bangkok comes for nature. I passed several groups of more than a hundred doing aerobics to thumping sound systems as I wound my way through the large park, stopping to watch one in particular, as it seemed to be only for those over the age of 70. Fueled by a rapid techno beat, the participants moved slowly, deliberately, without speed. A hundred geriatrics exercising in ninety degree weather to dance music. I really wanted to take a photo, but thought better of it.

On the far side of Lumpini, next to another MRT stop, I met Mike. Being on sabbatical, he has to do work every now and then and had spent the afternoon in air conditioned comfort working on a paper before heading down to meet me for dinner. The night market at Lumpini doesn't seem to have an exact, or even close, equivalent in the West, at least none that I have found. I had eaten here last winter with Wallapak and Sandra, but the nature of the night market gives that little weight: It is always different. After buying food tickets, Mike and I entered the massive arena, the size of a Cosco, including the parking lot, but open air. At one end was a stage where lithe Thai women sang popular tunes of the day. Along the edges were food stalls that sold everything from whole fried crab to hamburgers. Mike and I loaded up on a mussel omelet, glass noodle sea food salad (yam talay), graprao moo, and som tom. Food in hand, we migrated to the tables in the middle of the arena. Immediately a young Thai woman, girl really, came over in a belt like skirt and tank-top to offer us beer. Three liters of Paulaner hefeweizen came out a few minutes later. Forty minutes later, we had new plates of food on our table and another 3 liters of beer. The Lumpini night market isn't a place that Thai normally eat, but the nearness of Siam Square, a central business district, meant that both tourists and Thai entertaining guests packed the place. Mike and I talked about the plan for tomorrow, which involved an early start, a drive through morning Bangkok traffic, and then an activity near Lopburi. The beer gave me a sense of confidence, as did Mike's confidence in our success. We were going after a limestone tower that had seem very few ascents. It was going to be my first real multi pitch, technical rock climb. Although I had gone up several multi pitch rock routes in Washington, their technical level was nothing like what we had planned for tomorrow.I should have been scared. Instead I was euphoric.