Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Bangkok, June 24-25, 2011

Prepared to hate Bangkok, I was expecting a dirty city with stinking canals like I’d seen in Jakarta.  It was a pleasant surprise.  I found a modern city with a super fast subway and a skyway that whisks one quickly around the city.  And then there are the hosts of motorized rickshaws that are faster than a cab for shorter transportation needs and, if you are on the river, there are ferries.  Yes, the water is still dirty and one surely wouldn’t drink it, but overall, the city is fascinating and I attempted to do as much as possible in the day and a half I had allowed for the city. 

After checking into the hotel, I set out on foot.   It was obvious I was no longer in Malaysia.  Yes, there were outdoor markets everywhere, but these including things you’d have a hard time finding in a Muslim country.  Alcohol was everywhere, being sold even by street venders.  Street venders sold everything, including drugs that require prescriptions in the United States.  Right in front of one of the most plush hotel in the Sukhumvit District, there were at least two venders selling Vigara and other sex enhancing drugs along with other “sexual objects,” right next to venders selling t-shirts and Disney characters and Polo shirts (or at least knock-offs of the brand names).  Unlike Malaysia and Indonesia, where the women dressed conservatively, in Thailand, sexy was in.  Or, more correctly, provocative was in!   And then there were the guys, just as in Vegas, handing out fliers advertising massages that I’m sure were not nearly as innocent as the one I had in Indonesia.

One of the first things I did was to book a tour to Kanchanaburi, the town near the infamous bridge over the River Kwai.  Having read the book and seen the movie, I felt this was a must for one on a rail journey around the world. 

Campaigning in Bangkok (note photo of candidate's brother)
 I hired a rickshaw (a motorcycle pulling a cart) for an hour (26 bahts or about $2.50).  He spoke perfect English so I had him give me a tour around the eastern part of the city.  I asked him about the elections (there were posters everywhere) and he told me he was for candidate number one (each candidate had a number on their poster and candidate number one won the election and was often pictured on the poster with her brother, a disposed prime minister).  He went on to talk about being a Red Shirt (in last summer’s unrest).  When I asked if the King got involved in the elections, he put a finger to his mouth as to be quiet (being disrespectful of the King is a serious offense in Thailand) and then whispered that the King was no good and told about the Red Shirts who were killed last summer by the army.  I was surprised by his honesty; our State Department’s website has a warning not to say anything negative about or do anything disrespectful toward the royal family.  Such talk and actions are considered blasphemy and, as at least one American discovered, can get you thrown into a Thai jail.   He took me around.  I especially wanted to see the Makkasan Train station and he waited for me as I went in to check on a ticket to the Cambodian border.  As it is only a 3rd class train, they didn’t sell advance tickets, but I got a timetable and we continued our tour.  He showed me various markets and sights.  He stopped at one place and asked if I’d go in to look at their suits (it was a tailor shop), saying that if I just look and talk to them a few minutes, they’d give him a liter of petro.  I obliged (after all, his tour by this point was over an hour in length).  But as we back closer to my hotel, I got the sense what he really wanted to do was to set me up with a girl.  He kept asking if I didn’t want one and every time I said no, he’d laugh and say, “You’re such a good man.”  And then, a few minutes later, when we’d pass a woman in a miniskirt, he’d point to her and reintroduce the topic.  I began to wonder that if he got a liter of gasoline for taking me to a tailor, his commission on lining up a prostitute might be considerable.   

Wanting to make the most out of the one full day I had in the city, I got up early the next morning and took the skyway down to the riverside, south of town.  There, I picked up a ferry to run me upriver.  My plan was to visit Wat Pho and the Grand Palace, and then walk back through town to the train station where I could catch the subway back out to my hotel.  The boat trip up river was interesting as we passed long barges (which hauled commodities but also had quarters where families lived on them) and an array of boats.  Wat Arun (the Temple of Dawn) was pointed out to me by another tourist and learning that one can climb high on the temple and have a nice view up and down the river was appealing.  So I decided to include it in my travels that day.

My first stop was at Wat Pho, a temple that features a reclining Buddha (like the one in Penang, but even larger).  The complex, which sits next to the palace, is amazing.  There is no way to capture the magnitude of it all through a camera even with the lens at the widest setting.  Everything was colorful and beautiful.  I spent a couple hours walking around the temple, looking at the thousands of Buddha’s and the amazing architecture.  There are a number of stupas here for the remains of Thai kings and it was about midday when I was looking up at one saw a solar halo that seemed to crown the stupa.  It was a most amazing sight and if I was superstitious, I might even have seen it as an omen.

Solar Halo
I saved the reclining Buddha for last.  But before going into the Buddha, I realized my blood sugar level was a little low, so I stopped at the gift shop area and had an ice cream.  While there, I listen to an old fortune teller give a woman her fortune.  Because it was good, her husband tipped the man extra.  I shook my head wondering if anyone got the connection between the exchange of money and the fortune being told.  Then, when he was done, the fortune teller tried to pick up more business and asked a guy standing close by if he didn’t want to have his fortune told.  He asked how much (I didn’t catch the quote, but the guy countered with a much lower price and that seemed to insult the fortune teller.  I have great problems with the idea of fortune telling, fearing that I’d be like King Saul and learn that which I do not want to know.  After all, the future belongs not to me but to God.  But, if I was going to engage in the practice, I don’t think I’d go for the bargain price.  You might just get what you paid.  

The reclining Buddha was amazing.  Because it is housed in a temple, there was no way to get a good photograph of it, but I walked around it in awe.  While looking at the front of the Buddha, I kept hearing ringing sounds which sounded a lot like chimes.  Coming around the back, I realized it was offerings being dropped into a line of at least fifty brass pots.  For twenty bahts, one got a fistful of small coins (at that price made each coin worth less than the widow’s mite) and then dropped a coin into each of the pots, creating a wonderful jingling sound.

It was a little after noon when I left Wat Pho for the Grand Palace, only to discover (after I walked around the thing, which is about a mile) that there was some kind of special worship going on there with the King and family and the Palace was closed for the afternoon.  So I went down to the river and had some spicy noodles and squid for lunch, then took a ferry across the river to Wat Arun (the Temple of Dawn).  This temple was also amazing.  The steps were very steep, but climbing them was worthwhile as one had a commanding view of the river.  After an hour or so at Wat Arun, I crossed back over the river on a ferry and began to walk around the city, back in the direction of the train station where I could access the subway. 

.  After an hour or so at Wat Arun, I crossed back over the river on a ferry and began to walk around the city, back in the direction of the train station where I could access the subway.  My wanderings took me through some interesting markets!  Food, flowers, all kinds of stuff were being sold by the riverside.  As I didn’t travel in a straight line, I found myself in Little India and Chinatown (the Chinese seem to have the gold and jewelry monopoly in South Asia).  I kept walking and the light was fading and finally found someone who knew where I was at and I’d walked a kilometer or so beyond the railroad station and had to circle back.   Once there, I was whisked back to Sukhumvit Station, where I had a bowl of soup and some rice at a street vendor’s stall outside of the hotel for dinner.  Then, I went for a haircut, but there only one place left open and it was a fancy salon, so I ended up paying almost as much as I would have paid at home.  However, unlike at home, in addition to having my hair cut, it was shampooed and my beard was trimmed and there was a short head massage. 

Alice riding the White Rabbit?  At Wat Arun

Knowing that I needed to get up early the next morning in order to head to Kanchanaburi, I decided to call it a night.  I stopped at the 7-11 (if anyone wonders what happened to 7-11s in America, I think they all packed up and moved to Southeast Asia) to pick up water and something for breakfast as well as a beer to cap the day off.  To my surprise, beer was not being sold in Bangkok on a Saturday night for the next day, the polls opened for early voting (so there was a ban on alcohol sales).  This also caught a Thai guy who spoke English by surprise (he was the one who explained why they were not selling beer), but he told me not to worry, just check with a mom and pops place on the sidewalk.  But they too were not selling beer, so we walked across the street to a Chinese restaurant and each headed our separate ways with a bottle of beer. 
A canal passed on walk back


  1. Meeting ordinary people must be the best part, although the exotic sights and sounds are right up there, too.


  2. Marvelous how architecture was used as a social control in both the building and the maintenance. And how all are within a band circling the globe and all begun and ending almost as one.

  3. That head massage thing sounds wonderful. You are having so many diverse experiences, Jeff - I love your photos.

  4. That Solar halo is amazing. These names have such resonance. They scream exotic to me.