February 19, 2006 GMT
Thailand, Round 1

The advantage of an airplane is that it saves you a bunch of time and gets you across Nepal to Thailand when you are not allowed to take your big bike into Myanmar. The advantage of a motorcycle is that you don't have to check your lighter and manicure scissors as potential weapons of mass destruction before boarding. There are actually a few other advantages to motorcycle travel as well.

After months of awe when shops offer more than a dusty shelf of tinned sardines and vodka, Bangkok blows us away. Feast your eyes on freeways! Drop your jaws at shopping malls! Gawk at people everywhere! Wonder why not a one of them is sweating a drop in this stultifying muggy heat! Dripping impolitely, we scramble aboard the air-conditioned Sky Train, which will be used until the bike can be retrieved from the airport. Someone in Nepal, shipping the bike on Saturday, forgot to mention that airport cargo is closed on Sundays and Monday is a Buddhist holiday.

Bangkok shopping mall

The traffic is so bad in Bangkok that the Sky Train will come in handy even after the bike shows up. Whizzing along its elevated tracks feels like being a kid on some futuristic ride at Disneyland with wall-to-wall skyscrapers rushing forward at every bend. At the same time, curly temple roof corners and market sellers' umbrellas peek out through the concrete. Both of us visited in Bangkok over 20 years ago; neither remembers so much development.

traditional style

Hotel Atlanta is a funky art-deco hideaway in a modern part of town. Our quarters are like a big hospital room painted weird pastel colors. Signs in curlicue script are posted everywhere, warning guests of immediate eviction if discovered indulging in the sex trade on hotel premises. The downtown area is pretty upscale and not near the infamous Pat Pong neighborhood. Still, many potbellied balding glowing white guys are spotted hand in hand with attractive granddaughter-aged Thai girls. Dorothy, you're not in Kansas anymore.

Dave’s parents visited the super-fancy Hotel Oriental some years ago; in their honor we stop to admire its glamorous grounds. Erika’s not sure if we’ll be booted out, hopeless imposters of a far higher financial status than our ratty drippy travel wardrobe could ever aspire to represent. Dave contemplates $40 cigars as if he was considering buying one. Uh huh. The surrounding area offers glipses of more traditional city activities.

shaded market

There are other fun ways to get around Bangkok, like the local boats that ply the small canals. There are also the bigger ferries that cruise up and down the gray and smoggy Chao Phraya river, connecting waterside neighborhoods with major historical sights.

Chao Phraya river

Near the overwhelming overrun of tourist crap crammed into the backpacker center of Khao San Road, the sanctuary of a small Buddhist temple buzzes with people lighting incense and praying.

worship

We are invited inside, making sure to take off shoes first. Orange-clad monks sit chanting in long rows.

monks

Thailand is almost completely Buddhist, but other religions exist also, as evidenced by the Baptist Church next door to Hotel Atlanta where we will seek out safe parking after retrieving the bike from the airport. Pastor Martin welcomes the motorcycle with discussions of his growing congregation and some light evangelizing. The bike will be fine in the parking lot for the next few days. After its little adventure at airport customs, waiting for us to track down the obscure faraway office in the sweltering heat, waiting for us to recover the use of our mouths after being fed the spiciest shredded papaya salad ever made by snickering dock workers, waiting to be hoisted across the cavernous warehouse by the forklift operator who unsuccessfully tries to extort $12 extra, waiting to be refilled with gas after trying to get us across town without any, and waiting to be driven in the RIGHT direction until long after dark towards the motorcycle shop way out in the boonies where it might be fitted with new tires, it can use the rest.

the bike's travels

The food here is out of this world. At the endless array of super-modern shopping malls are "food courts" offering mouth-watering arrays of everything Asian and Western, in air-conditioned comfort at very little cost. Street food is even cheaper and equally tantalizing. You can get barbeque, pad thai, a dozen kinds of sliced fruit, coconut juice, squid on sticks, sticky rice, fried something, boiled something, and grilled something. After roughing it for so many months (okay, so all that Nepalese pizza wasn't really "roughing it") the taste sensations are inciting a dining frenzy. There's also 7-11, where all the junk food that's been invisible for the last few months has been hiding. Now it's hiding in our expanding bellies.

let's have THIS for dinner

However you can only spend so much time in the shopping malls. Though Erika wants to explore neighborhoods and see the tourist sights, that will have to wait til Bangkok Round 2 on the way back from Laos. Now, we are heading that-a-way via the less-touristy northeastern part of Thailand. Even in Bangkok few people speak English; NO one speaks it out here. Attempts to master some words of the tonal Thai language are met with blank stares. And menus are in Thai. Well, this does happen when you travel. We were spoiled in Pakistan and India where so many people knew OUR tongue, but now it's back to the old waving-and-gesticulating style of communication. On the other hand, road signs--along with notices for waterfalls, temples, and national parks--are in English. And the roads are excellent.

First stop is the pleasant but unremarkable mid-sized town of Khorat, followed the next night by similar Khon Kaen. A thunderstorm cuts the heat for a few minutes before leaving things more humid than ever. Dave begs to eat dim sum at 7-11 for breakfast. He is indulgently granted his wish, with the caveat that it doesn't happen EVERY day. Thus sated, it's off to Sai Ngam, where about 1500 square feet of banyan tree root have grown together to form an astonishing terrace of shady parkway. The banyan tree is religiously significant as the Buddha is said to have found enlightenment while meditating under one.

garlands, banyan tree

It's a very pleasant stroll beneath the roots. We carry a small cage with two little twittering brown birds to be released at the edge of the pond for good luck.

good luck birds

Nearby is Phimai Historical Park, one of the most important Khmer sites in Thailand. The dense heat makes it very atmospheric. Extra points for heat as we're wearing motorcycle gear. This must mean it's even MORE atmospheric.

monk at Phimai

Next stop Khon Kaen, where Erika asks for another hopeless Thai lesson at the tourist office. One can theorize it's nice to provide people with a big laugh once in a while. We find an inexpensive atmospheric old wooden bed-bug infested hotel where Dagmar, a German motorcyclist, is also staying. Together we have tasty noodles at a street stall, swapping stories while another lightning storm lights up the rain-drenched night.

Last stop before Laos is the border town of Nong Khai. Along the road a series of small stalls are selling what looks like either sugar cane or bamboo flutes--hard to tell at 60 MPH. More noticeable is the fact that each seller is doing what looks like a little dance beckoning passers-by to stop at her shop. Further along the road come a sequence of bushes shaped, with varying levels of success, like a zoo-ful of animals. These all help to break up the rather non-descript scenery. Once arriving in Nong Khai we find a little guesthouse near the river. Erika goes for a stroll through the long narrow indoor market. She notes for not the first time that Thailand seems to provide opportunities for its national pasttime, shopping, just about everywhere. Though the town is small, it apparently hosts at least 15 temples.

temple detail

The next morning before crossing into Laos we visit the wild-and-whacky-cool Sala Keaw Koo park. This amazing place was created by a monk who studied both Hindu and Buddhist philosophy and spent a lifetime sculpting dozens of oversized deities of both. You can walk through the mouth of a demon into a crumbling representation of the Wheel of Life, complete with cuddling skeletons. Or hover under the gaze (or four) (or seven) of many-headed gods and snakes, hundreds of feet high. Check it out.

meditative

It's an inspiring finale to Thailand--at least this finale, as we'll end up coming back two more times. Just a few more hours until crossing the Friendship Bridge into Laos.

dave, bike, temple

Posted by Erika Tunick at February 19, 2006 09:24 AM GMT
 


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