Thailand, Round 2
The Lao doctor told Dave to stay off the bike for a month so his fractured collarbone (incurred during The Pakse Bovine Encounter) can heal properly. Dave's been bearing up like a trooper; but unable to do much of anything for the last week, he's starting to go bonkers. His second favorite thing after feeling wind on his neck from the seat of a motorcycle is feeling breeze of the air conditioning from the heart of a shopping mall. So after a week's rest in Pakse, Laos we're heading via bus and plane back to Bangkok. While border crossings from inside passenger vehicles are less than ideal, this one will have to do given the current circumstance. One last meal at the napkin-strewn feeble-fanned cafe with great coconut noodle soup, one last view of the Mekong beyond old town Pakse rooftops, one last longing look at the bike from which we'll be separated for the next 3 weeks, and it's off to Thailand again.
March in Thailand and Laos ain't no cool and breezy picnic--even the dust pants, dehydrated and paralyzed in a stagnant haze. Half an hour shuffling through customs is only good in that it makes you appreciate the air-conditioned bus. Otherwise, being on a bus is sending Dave into fits of antsy fervor to be back on the bike. Erika on the other hand kinda likes the cushy seats.
We arrive in Ubon Ratchathani at dusk and indulge in some excellent international-chain pizza. Ubon looks modern in that bland mid-sized-Thai-city way, especially compared to much less developed Laos. Erika's camera kicks the bucket, leaving her fingers twitching uselessly at scenic spots. She borrows Dave's until the next shopping spree in Bangkok.
It's dripping hot. The sun goes down with little relief. An early morning walk a few kilometers to the airport leaves us drenched like scrappy sponges dunked in the ocean, though noticeably less refreshed. Of course none of the locals has one immaculate dry hair out of place. We seek solace in endless tasty food. Rice, fried egg and small sweet sausage for breakfast. Grilled beef rolls wrapped in herb-y leaves with crispy beansprout shrimp pancakes for dinner. Gooey glutinous syrupy sweet coconut things for dessert. Who says you lose your appetite in the heat.
Next thing you know we're flying into in Bangkok. This time around we're savvy to the public transportation tricks (don't believe there's no way downtown except the pricey airport shuttle--penny pinchers can catch a bus to the speedy Sky Train and head on from there.) Small entrepreneurs sell their wares right under signs stating "vending prohibited". Presumably the signs would be more effective written in Thai.
We find our next few weeks' lodging on Soi Kasem San 1, a small artery off a huge main drag near shopping mall central, a.k.a. Siam Square. You can dine at different food court stalls for weeks and still have scarcely begun to exhaust the possibilities. You can have soupy scoops of mild or spicy curries ladled into plastic baggies to eat with rice later
or a stir-fry, pad thai or papaya salad at a small street vendor on the spot.
If you like arthropods, consider a bag of takeaway insects.
Days pass. Get teeth somewhat cleaned at seemingly modern dentist office. Obsess over cameras at labyrynthine indoor flea markets. Catch up on Oscar-nominated movies (favorite: "Crash"). Sweat with confusion navigating mazelike overpasses breaching pedestrian-impermeable streets. Board cross-town skytrains to obscure suburbs in search of Erika's ever-elusive replacement credit card. Check out the continuous upward-growth of the city.
We meet up with Erik and Elif, another motorcycle couple with whom Dave has been corresponding via e-mail. Erik, a Norwegian, met Elif in her native Turkey while riding through on his world travel adventure. They have met up again in Thailand to explore some of Southeast Asia together.
One evening we share a meal in one of the famous shopping malls; the next we take a boat down the Chao Phraya River to Chinatown. Temples and shrines dot neighborhoods throughout the city. Though Thailand is 90% Buddhist other faiths practice here as well.
Many buildings are adorned with billboards of His Majesty King Bhumipol Adulyadej. At the movies, all must stand during the national anthem and a short montage of the king's life and accomplishments. The king has ruled for almost 60 years, the longest of any of the present world's monarchs. Unlike some rulers in countries we've visited King Bhumipol seems to guide fairly and with deep respect from his people. He is in fact so revered that any words against him can result in a conviction of treason.
The king largely stays out of politics, however. Demonstrations are taking place regarding alleged corruption on the part of prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Students and others have mobilized to effectively shut down the city's major artery and shopping center (what, no shopping center?!?) At the time of this writing in September 2006 (which tells you how far behind the blog has gotten) a military coup has occurred, putting Thaksin's political future in jeopardy.
More errands, internet, movies, malls. When are we going to do some sightseeing already?? One day we head out for the Grand Palace with its multitude of elaborate spires and sculptures. A taxi driver says the palace is closed today for A Special Festival, but there's this Other Unmissable Attraction across town. To which he can bring us. Sorry--been travelling too long to fall for that one. We walk around the corner, buy our tickets and enter the site. Between temples, royal lodgings, murals, government buildings, gardens and courtyards there's a lot of fascinating atmosphere to soak up.
Wat Phra Keo houses an ornate altar within the grounds. A golden Buddha sits meditating calmly at its summit. It is considered rude to point your feet towards the altar or towards anyone as feet are the lowest part of the body. Many rules of Thai etiquette are different from our own, such as aversion to displays of anger, confrontation or dispute. These are seen as signs of weakness and lack of self control. It is important to maintain harmonious relationships and avoid losing face.
A huge reclining Buddha rests in grandeur at nearby Wat Po. Its 46 meters almost fill up the entire building.
For some reason the Grand Palace houses a minature replica of Angkor Wat. This is the closest we'll get to viewing the huge Khmer religious monument, as the Cambodian leg of our trip fell by the wayside with the bike in Laos. Thanks, cow. Still, when you're not somewhere else, you're where you are; and the Grand Palace in Bangkok is not such a bad place to be. Dave gets to spend some time flirting with temple guardians.
Another day, destined for a more thorough exploration of Chinatown, we hop on one of the little canal speedboats. Zooming through the canals with locals who use this as their regular mode of transportation is one of Erika's favorite things in Bangkok. The ramshackle houses hugging the canal banks look like their tin roofs could be blown off in the mildest wind, not to mention a blustery downpour. The mild wind of the moment picks up as raindrops start to come down. How obliging, now they're turning into a blustery downpour just so we can see whether the tin roofs will blow off.
The roofs stay on. We hover under a small overhang at the boat stop until the rain lets up some time later. In the neighborhoods, the storm has been less kind to the trees than to the roofs.
Chinatown's another riot of color and culinary gratification. We wander down car-clogged avenues, through electronics-clogged flea markets, up people-clogged alleyways into restaurant-clogged sidestreets. THIS is the place to be.
Next days. More shopping malls, internet, sauna-like heat, skyscrapers, Sky Trains, subways, canal boats, bike part searches, sweaty walks, student protests, temple shrines, street food, mall food, food courts and flea markets. Erika finally buys a new camera, a Sony digital destined to be ripped off in Java a few months later. But that's another story. Erika gets her birthday dinner at a FABULOUS sushi buffet, the Oishi Grand, only 5 months late. Then again who would've wanted dry bread and mutton fat for their birthday dinner, anyway.
Two weeks have passed and Dave's shoulder is healing up nicely. Erika's antsy to leave Bangkok and Dave's itching to get back on the bike. The remaining few days are spent checking out some last-minute attractions: impressive Golden Mount temple, fabulous Wimanmek Mansion (The World's Largest Golden Teak Mansion), the Elephant Museum (with its fist-sized elephant molar) and the zoo. It won't be our last time in Thailand on this trip; but in the last two weeks we've accumulated enough images, both sacred
to hold us over till the next time.
Posted by Erika Tunick at 09:58 AM