Asia

Bangkok – An Assault on the Senses

Not quite fully adjusted to the time difference, I sprang out of bed around 5:30am. John had been up during the night, his body telling him it was early in the afternoon, but had devised a brilliant strategy to get back to sleep: down two oversized Singha beers.

Needless to say, he was back in bed by the time I woke up. This sucked for him, as I am apparently very loud in the morning. This has been brought up several times since the event. In my defense…all the things we had purchased to eat for breakfast just happened to be encased in crinkly packages. It’s impossible to make tea quietly…too much porcelain involved.

I will admit, the flip flops were probably a little too much.

After about 20 minutes of puttering around, I settled on the sofa and read very quietly on the kindle.

Our plan for the day was fairly loose, but it had a beginning and an end already: The Weekend Market and NFL replays at the Sport Corner. The rest of the day was filled in rather randomly.

The Chatuchak weekend market is the largest market in Thailand, sprawling over 35 acres and visited by an estimated 200,000 people per day. Getting there required taking the SkyTrain, which is an elevated public transit system. The fact that Bangkok seems so completely endless, and that it is multilayered with canals, roads, roads on overpasses and then topped with the towering 5 stories high SkyTrain, you feel as though you could be in Chrisopher Nolan’s Gotham. Our ride on the train pulled us out of our cozy neighborhood and rocketed us through ‘New Bangkok’ where temples, immense shopping malls and sprawling street markets somehow seem to peacefully co-exist. It’s wonderful!

As we may have mentioned 100 times, Bangkok is an incredibly hot place, but unlike some cities we’ve visited (I’m looking at you Vienna) the Thai’s have embraced the art of air conditioning. Not only was our SkyTrain experience clean and efficient, it was also blissfully chilled.

While I’m gushing, I must also mention that the ticket buying process is the least confusing we have encountered thus far on our trip. Having ridden upon countless transit systems for the past 9 months, the process of paying the correct amount for a ticket from one place to another has ranged between semi-frustrating to near impossible. What is, on it’s face, a very simple task (getting from point A to point B) is complicated by an infinite number of options: Single zone, multi-contiguous zones, combination zones, time of day, number of total trips, 5/10/15 minute trips, all day passes, 3 day passes, week passes with a side of coleslaw…the possibilities are endless. These options are presented to the visitor via a ticket kiosk, the face of which has a limited amount of real estate to display the myriad of options, resulting in an collection of information resembling history’s most intricate and cramped crib sheet, the key to which is known only to the architect. Add to this jumble of options, a fare selection process that uses a mysterious high logic known only to theoretical physicists.

At the surrounding machines, people are zipping through the process in just a few seconds and it’s at this point you realize while you were busy attempting to decipher Kryptos, a long line of natives has formed behind you. Embarrassingly, people are now getting out of your line and joining their fellow Mensa card-carrying geniuses to either side of you. You give up, shuffle off to the side and wait for the platform to be deserted before you just cave and buy the full day pass, savings be damned.

Bangkok, a city with 6 transit lines and over 50 stops, has two options: an all day pass sold at the ticket booths (always open, always helpful) and a single use fare purchased at a kiosk. Of course, the fare varies depending upon the length of your trip, but there are no riddles to solve to determine what you need to pay. The kiosk has a map with the appropriate fare to each station labeled beside each stop and 8 corresponding buttons. That’s it. You only need 3 seconds in front of this machine to determine your fare. CRACKABOOM!

I love this city.

Annnywaaaay…we arrived at Chatuchek market around mid-morning and were greeted by a cool breeze, a delightful change from the usual heavy press of humidity. The 15,000 stalls are separated into 27 sections, which are somewhat themed, each section having a collection of goods. Housewares, clothes, books, shoes, garden supplies, antiques, pets…the list goes on. 2015/01/img_3342.jpgPenis soaps, anyone? Place your order now.

Narrow paths wind through the covered sections, cooled by a combination of the breeze, electric fans and air conditioning units. The market has grown up around trees that surrounded the original perimeter, creating the illusion that you are shopping in a series of connected tree houses…it’s a lovely feeling. Wide pedestrian avenues flank the covered sections, lined with street vendors selling delicious meat-on-a-stick type foods which fill the air with the smell of sizzling meat and charcoal. It’s a jolly old time.2015/01/img_3343.jpgThe amount of goods was overwhelming…you could spend all day here wandering around, buying things you didn’t know you needed. As we entered the market, I saw many people rolling around suitcases…a task not suited to the environment. I thought they were just clueless tourists visiting the market on their way to the airport, but then I realized that even the locals had bags. It turns out the suitcases are for filling with purchases. We couldn’t even comprehend actually shopping here…too many options…so much potential stuff to buy. The pet section was extreme; apparently baby squirrels are big here as there were many stalls selling them. Let’s be clear, before the comments start, they were for sale in the pet section. We weren’t allowed to take photos of them, so you will just have to take my word that these little guys were wearing little crocheted bonnets and vests. SERIOUSLY. Instead, here’s a picture of cacti.2015/01/img_3344.jpgWe decided to treat this visit as a recon mission, earmarking items to buy when we come back through Bangkok before heading to Australia. There are many restaurants intermingled throughout the complex; John decided upon a meal in a pineapple, which happened to coordinate with his outfit.2015/01/img_3345.jpg
Three hours was about all we could take, so we found an exit and headed back to the SkyTrain. On the way to the market, we had noticed an enormous inflatable Pikachu bobbing around by Siam Square, so we decided to check it out.2015/01/img_3347.jpgWe caught the touring Worlds Biggest Pokemon Land on it’s final day in Bangkok. The place was packed with people of all ages wearing paper Pikachu hats, taking selfies in front of Pikachu mascots, wearing Pikachu t-shirts. Needless to say, it was pretty Pika-riffic…and entirely too much stimulation for us. Siam Square is completely surrounded by towering shopping mega-plexes, so having already explored the market of the everyman, we decided take a peek into the market of the rich and famous. Bangkok’s malls are intense. The one we picked randomly had 8 stories, with Thailand’s biggest IMAX screen, a regular movie theatre and a bowling alley on top. One floor held a collection of car showrooms. Who goes to the mall to buy a Lamborghini?

We considered resting our dogs and watch a movie…mainly due to the enticing Blue Ribbon Screens. For the bargain price of $30 per person, you can watch, for example, Taken 3 in the comfort of your own private love-seat, under a blanket while plied with free cocktails, snacks and a foot massage. We almost took them up on it…in the end it came down to our reluctance to pay $30 to see Maggie Grace get rescued by whispery Liam Neeson yet again. We vowed we’d drop $60 next time we were in Bangkok if the film option improved…and really, there’s nowhere to go but up.2015/01/img_3346.jpg
It was turning out to be a commerce themed day…our next stop was to visit Pak Klong Talad, Bangkok’s biggest wholesale flower market. Located riverside, just south of Wat Pho, the best way to get there is via the tourist boat we took the day before. However, feeling adventurous, we decided to get as far as we could via wheeled transit, and walk the rest. On the way to the station, elevated above Silom Road, we looked down upon yet another street market, selling everything from clothes, to food, to an opportunity to feed some goats. Whatever floats your boat.2015/01/img_3318.jpg

2015/01/img_3319.jpgI don’t know whether this is a weekend thing or any everyday occurrence, but man, these folks like to shop.2015/01/img_3348.jpg

2015/01/img_3349.jpgOur walking tour took us back through Chinatown, and included two pretty amazing sites.

As we wandered around the back streets, we spied a slender golden spire, gleaming in the sun. We had stumbled across Phra Phuttha Maha Suwan Patimakon, or the Golden Buddha, the world’s largest golden statue.2015/01/img_3350.jpgWeighing in at 5.5 tons, the statue is estimated to have been made sometime during the 13th-14th centuries and originally displayed in Thailand’s first capital, Sukothai. Later moved to the second capital, Ayuthattya, it was covered in stucco and decorated with colorful glass to prevent it from getting stolen by the Burmese during the destruction of the capital in 1767. It hung around , untouched, in the ruins of the city. In 1801, Bangkok was declared the new capital of Thailand and, soon afterwards, King Rama III ordered a vast collection of Buddhas to be moved from across the country to the new capital city. Still encased in stucco, the statue was the centerpiece for the Wat Chotanaram, until the temple fell into disrepair. The statue was moved to it’s current location at Wat Traimit, at the time a minor temple in Chinatown, and was kept under a tin roof shelter where it stayed for 200 years.

In 1954, Wat Traimit was due for an upgrade. During the construction of the new facade, the statue was lifted from it’s pedestal only to crash to the ground after the ropes broke. On impact, a piece of the plaster chipped away, displaying the gold underneath. When all the plaster was removed, it was found that the gold statue actually consisted of nine parts that fit smoothly together (I’m assuming this inspired Mr. Ikea to start his flat-pack empire). A key (allen wrench) was also found encased in plaster at its base, which is used to disassemble the statue, allowing for easier transportation.

We slipped off our shoes and joined the crowd to kneel in front of the Buddha for while, until our western knees ached and forced us to move along.

Chinatown was not done with us yet. We’ve become bolder in our exploration of strange cities now, hardly pausing before ducking down tiny alleys or into dark doorways…if there are people going in and out, there’s bound to be interesting things to see. As we walked, we noticed a hubbub of activity around a small doorway surrounded by steps lined with old men selling (presumably) dozens of tiny chirping finches out of small wooden square cages. We pushed through the entrance and found ourselves in a small room, filled with the sweet smoke of thousands of incense sticks and candles. Locals were buying fistfuls of red incense, lighting the bundles at fires burning in hanging copper pots. Surrounding the walls of the temple were small shrines, flanked by towering red candles 3 feet high and as thick as your leg. The air was thick with sweet smoke, people were praying all around us…we were the only Westerners there and no one gave two figs about us. We just stood and stared, soaking in the unfamiliar atmosphere which was a wonderful and perplexing mix of chaos and calm. Once again, Bangkok has gifted me a memory I will never forget.

An hour later, in which we dodged various scammy tuk tuk drivers (where are you going? Where are you going?) we reached the flower market just as the sun set. The market is open 24 hours, and is primarily a wholesale market, but there were plenty of people picking up a couple of bunches for personal use. 2015/01/img_3321.jpg

2015/01/img_3323.jpgWe were visiting at a fairly tame time, the pace really picks up around 3:00am, when the flowers are delivered to the market from the nurseries surrounding Bangkok. Even so, the small streets were plugged with men on motorcycles, piled high with bags of chrysanthemums and bunches of roses. For once, the smell of petrol fumes was blotted out by the smell of thousands of blooms. It was pretty special.2015/01/img_3323-0.jpg

2015/01/img_3324.jpg
Our aching feet needed a break, so we jumped back on the boat and took the lazy man’s scenic route back to the SkyTrain via the wide Bangkok river. On our way we saw a 4 foot long monitor lizard cruising around on the banks. Bangkok!

Even though our feet were aching, we had one more stop for the day. John had found a bar which was showing NFL playoff replays. It was located in the Sukhumvit district which required a couple more trips on the SkyTrain. Not wanting to commit to another 6 hours in the vertical position, we just wanted to have a beer and check out the scene before committing to the Packers game the following evening. The Sport Corner was a lively joint, with open air seating out front. Speaking of fronts, it’s entirely possible that the entire staff of waitresses could be, erm…persuaded to perform other services? John and I were definitely the odd ones out; that is, we were watching the game and not pulling Thai women into our laps, grabbing handfuls of bums, breasts and various other areas I’m too polite to talk about. The clientele was overwhelmingly Western, old and lecherous. The girls didn’t seem to have a problem with it…but, it sure was sleazy.

It was finally time to go back home for the night, but not before we wolfed down a couple of slices of street pizza. It was only around 8pm, but we collapsed into bed nonetheless…a decision that I do not regret in the slightest.Two days in Bangkok had stimulated our senses: Sight, sound, smell and taste had all been overwhelmed, which left one sense remaining.

We had earmarked our last full day in Bangkok for relaxation…which meant massages! Our host, Tor, had pointed us in the direction of a massage house just down the street. For a shocking cheap price at $7 an hour, we booked ourselves for a 60 minute full body massage. After changing into our snazzy robes, we were escorted into a small room, the floor covered in large cushions and instructed to lie down on our stomachs and relax.

What followed was probably the most agonizing massage I have ever experienced. I was pulled, pummeled, tweaked and bent in new and interesting ways. John and I were side by side, letting out the tiniest of moans (show no weakness) as two tiny Thai women used their surprising strength to poke several layers into our muscles. John was being poked via elbows…my masseuse’s weapon of choice was her thumbs of iron. Seriously, y’all…I would not be surprised to find out these ladies had adamantiam skeletons. As my calves were getting shredded with an extreme amount of pressure, an image came to me: You know at the end of Terminator, after Arnie’s skin has been ripped off, and he’s reaching for Sarah Connor while being crushed? That’s what came to mind…that metal hand, reaching…intent on squeezing the life out of Linda Hamilton. I kept my eyes firmly shut; luckily, I was on my stomach so my silent screaming face was being pressed into the mat. My god…it hurt so much. I would not have been surprised if I looked back and saw her sawing into my leg with a carving knife.

All this happened within the first 5 minutes. She was working symmetrically, which added another dimension of dread…when you finally survived an assault on one side, you knew it was about to be repeated on the other. While I was lying there, grimacing with eyes rolled into the back of my head, I realized two things, one of which I already ready knew, so it was more of a gentle reminder, and one new fact about myself. 1) Torture is completely ineffective as a way to extract valuable, coherent information and 2) No matter what I would like to think, much like Chunk, I would spill everything. Everything? EVERYTHING.

Fortunately, after 15 minutes, the massaging got less intense, or I just entered a plateau of pain that bypassed my brain. The next 45 minutes were ouchy, but mostly pleasurable in comparison. When our time was up, John and I hobbled out of the temple, waited the appropriate amount of time before turning wide-eyed to each other and blurted out at the same time “Ohmygodthathurtsomuch/holyshitthatwasintense” We got as far as the restaurant next door and collapsed in a rubbery, sweaty pile. Pad Thai for me…spicy noodles for John. Really spicy…as in, crying, sweating spicy. I gently reminded him where we were…and that spicy means a whole different thing here. He braved pushed through, but it was really easy to talk him into some ice cream immediately following.

While we were enjoying our DQ on the steps of our neighborhood food court, we were approached by a elderly gentleman who enquired as to how long John had been growing his beard. For the record, this is the third time we have been stopped on the street to answer this question. What followed was a friendly 15 minute conversation about our travels over the last 9 months, to his trip to Portland, to our upcoming Thailand itinerary. Around the 16 minute mark, it became clear to us that what we thought was a charming conversation with a local was actually a masterful long-con, intended to lure us to the tourist information center via tuk tuk to take advantage of a special promotion that was ending today for an all exclusive train ticket to all of Thailand’s tourist destinations. We had foolishly told him we were on our way to the train station to buy our sleeper train tickets for Chiang Mai to Bangkok, and then spent the next 5 minutes trying to untangle ourselves from his services. We finally escaped, feeling proud that we, for once, didn’t fall for the scam. We’ve since extracted ourselves from no less than three of these plots, each involving tuk tuk drivers intent on taking us to buy cheap clothes, gems and all inclusive tickets to various attractions on the way to wherever we were actually trying to get to. We’ve come a long way from Costa Rica, baby…

We were too sore from our massage to do anything but go home and rest before heading back out to Sport Corner for some more 12hour-old NFL. Our thanks to those in our Facebook feed from refraining to comment on the Packers game until we saw it.

We left Bangkok the next afternoon, clicking and clacking our way to Kanchanaburi via a third class train. I will miss Bangkok…of all of the big cities this country mouse has visited, I found Bangkok to be the most exciting, exotic and most manageable yet. We will be back through two more times before coming home, so it wasn’t the final goodbye. On our return visit, I hope to collect more pictures of Bangkok’s power cables, which make the streets look like a giant metal silly string sculpture. 2015/01/img_3351.jpg

As I type, I am sitting in a cafe that floatings on the famous River Kwai. Life is good people, life is good. More in a couple of days!

GO PACKERS!

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2 replies »

  1. I love reading about your adventures. Your pictures are absolutely wonderful! Thank you so much for sharing. Safe travels!

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