Sunday, September 21, 2014

Bangkok, day two: the Chao Phraya River cruise

I woke up on the morning of Friday, July 25, "had a good gap and a stretch" as Mark Twain would say, ate breakfast, and chatted with my cubicle neighbor, a lovely 20-year-old woman from Kent whom I shall call Emilia. I'd never met anybody from Kent before. Then I lazed around in bed until noon reading Dune, and when I got hungry I went out for some lunch. Whom should bump into but Emilia, returning from her sweaty morning forays into Bangkok? 

We went for lunch together at the same little Thai-Sri Lankan greasy spoon off Phetchaburi Road that I'd been eating at every day, and had us a good long chinwag. She was fascinating to talk to: she was about to start university in the fall (studying journalism, no less!), and had worked as a waitress in a pub. She knew all about pulling pints. We talked a fair bit about journalism's slow but steady transition from print to Internet and how that would affect our respective careers. ("Career" is a pretty loose term to use about the lazy, indolent stuff I've been doing since I graduated in 2007, and I said as much.) Even though I was nearly eight years her senior, I did my level best not to be patronizing or offer unwanted advice; I remembered how I'd felt as a twenty-year-old green buck and I used to hate it when people tried to counsel me. Just let me do my own thing, will you, you old codgers? 

Then I took the BTS Skytrain south and west to the Chao Phraya River (the Saphan Taksin stop on the Silom line), strode a few hundred meters to the Sathorn waterbus stop, bought a ticket for 40 baht, and boarded a boat heading upriver. 

Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn, on the western bank of the Chao Phraya.

It was a delightful ride. This is one of the best ways to get around in Bangkok, as a lot of the sights and activities are clustered along the eastern bank of the river. Here's a printable route map of the particular waterbus line that I used, and here's an itemized list of the stops. 

During the voyage I spoke to an elderly, rotund, balding Oregonian man who'd been stationed in Thailand in 1967 and was now visiting with his freckly, frizzy-haired granddaughter. He said he was most impressed with the high-rise hotels: Bangkok had become a "very modern city" since he'd seen it last. They hadn't a building over three or four stories in '67. He'd been stationed somewhere in the north of Thailand to monitor Communist air traffic in Laos, I believe, but he and his comrades would sneak south into Bangkok whenever they could and have a bit of fun. I can only imagine what a rough-and-tumble place the city was back then, before it was civilized, digitized, modernized, and gentrified. Saddens me I never saw it, and I told the Oregonian so. 

I got off at the No. 8 stop, Tha Tien. I weaved through the dockside throng, ignored all the souvenir sellers and noodle joints clinging perilously to stilts along the waterfront, and dove headfirst into Wat Pho,  the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. But I'll show you that in the next post. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

Bangkok, day one (part II)

The latter half of Thursday, July 24 went swimmingly, and more than made up for the crappy first half. 

I hopped the BTS Skytrain from Ratchathewi Station to Phrom Phong, about five or six stations south. (Only 34 baht compared to the 150 I'd been paying them crooked tuk-tuk drivers.) Upon leaving the station and walking a few hundred yards, I noticed a plywood sign. It was affixed over the threshold of a restaurant named Im Chan, across the four-lane road beneath the elevated railway, and read "THAIFOOD VERY GOOD AND VERY CHEAP."

Well, how could I possibly pass that up?

I waltzed right in and ordered up some shrimp pad thai for 50 baht and fried tofu, also 50 baht. A hulking, delicious meal for only $3.50. I was beginning to succumb to the charms of Southeast Asia, corrupt tuk-tuk drivers and nosy Thai geezers notwithstanding. It was nice, for once, to not be able to decide which items on the menu to select...but to have the sound financial option of selecting both.

I smacked my lips, paid my bill, and walked a few blocks further, to the area of Sukhumvit Road between Soi 26 and Soi 28, to a little foreigner-owned bookstore called Dasa Book Café.

Not my photo.

The smell as I walked through the doors was a wondrous blend of hardwood floors, dusty shelves, yellowing pages, creased bindings, and dog-eared covers. I paused for a moment to savor it—it'd been many a long year since I'd smelled that particular deliciousness. 

I was looking for something to replace The Catcher in the Rye—my copy of which, in fact, is even now sitting on the shelf in Mixed Dormitory C of Boxpackers Hostel off Pretchaburi Road in Bangkok, awaiting the next thirsty reader. Almost immediately as I entered Dasa I spotted a tattered copy of Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim and snatched it up. I'd been meaning to read it for ages. A couple of minutes later I noticed a cardboard sign that had the legend "MORE BOOKS UPSTAIRS!" scribbled on it in black marker, so I ascended a narrow mahogany staircase and located the sci-fi section. There I found Frank Herbert's Dune and The Number of the Beast by Robert A. Heinlein. I almost bought both, but I figured I'd limit myself to two books, as heartbreaking as that was. I didn't want to bring a whole library home to Seoul in my backpack. I selected Dune

The final item on the day's list was to find some high place and get the lay of the land—preferably a cocktail bar that wasn't too picky about dress codes. So I chose the tallest building in Thailand: the Baiyoke Sky Hotel.

I paid $10 and rode up to the observation deck on the 77th floor, which was something like a museum. It had photogenic artifacts scattered about, tailor-made for the vain Asian obsession with selfies. 

...which many a Westerner has fallen prey to.

I took a leisurely stroll around, looking at everything. It was only four o'clock and I had some time to kill before the sunset (or the bar opened, whichever came first). I took the elevator up to the 83rd floor and walked up two flights of stairs to the rotating open-air observation deck. A fine, cool breeze was blowing, wiping the sweat off my forehead after my steamy trek through south-central Bangkok. The city sure looked pretty in the late afternoon sunlight.

Then I went down to the bar, had a Manhattan, and watched the sun sink lower...

...directly into a welter of storm clouds boiling up from the western horizon. 

Rats. No sunset?

I paid 300 baht for my drinks and went back up to the observation platform. The wind had freshened and I could see that it was raining like hell a few miles to the west, on the outskirts of the city. I dithered around up there until the first drops began to fall, and then I went back to the 77th floor, opened up Dune, and began to read. The thunderstorm rolled across the city and rain pelted the windows. Lightning flashed at three points of the compass and the room darkened to nocturnal depths. 

I was determined to wait the storm out. Sunset wouldn't be until nearly 8, so there was a fine chance that this monsoon squall would blow itself out before then. My instincts were correct. The sun broke through at 7:45. I slammed my book shut and raced back up to the top deck. 

The air had a heavier, wetter, more relaxed feeling, as if some pent-up energy had been released, and sky and ground were but two lovers lying in bed and sharing a cigarette after a tempestuous bout of lovemaking. A few stray droplets still blew through the air and tickled the eyebrows and lashes. Loving couples stood tangled up with each other as they watched the sun peek through a hole in the clouds and illuminate all creation with its soft pinkish-gold light. Then the fiery orb sank out of sight beyond the western horizon and its ruff of grey oblivion, and I capitulated and went home. 

I made two resolutions that evening: to tour western Bangkok by water bus, see two or three temples, and do it all without setting foot in a tuk-tuk. Come back tomorrow to see how it all fell out.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Bangkok, day one (part I)

Not my photo. Obviously.

Travel Truth #5: Take time to take time.

For what? Well, to relax. Or to get stuff done. Either one. Don't be rushing around trying to see everything all the time. You have to slow down and sacrifice some of your precious vacation to housekeeping. Or precious oblivion. Either one. 

The first half of my first full day in Bangkok was devoted to errands. Administrative stuff, such as: 

  1. laundry
  2. acquiring a tourist map, a pen, a small notebook (for taking notes while I'm walking around), floss, and sunblock
  3. get a tuk-tuk to take me to Hua Lamphong Station to buy tickets for Malaysia
  4. find a bookstore and pick up some reading material to replace The Catcher in the Rye, which I'd finished on the bus from Cambodia
  5. eat Thai food, as much as I can hold
  6. buy and send postcards, if possible

The second half would be devoted to...well, whatever the hell I wanted. I have a couple of things I like to do when I first get to a city, like:

  • climb some high thing and get the lay o' the land
  • take a stroll in the neighborhood immediately surrounding my lodgings and get a feel for it
  • find out where the nearest bus, train, and cab stations are
  • eat local food and people-watch

I'd picked up floss and sunblock and notepads and pens when I went to 7-11 last night for water, so that was already done. I dropped off my laundry at the front desk for 100 baht, picked up a tourist map, grabbed a tuk-tuk to Hua Lamphong, and bought a second-class sleeper ticket to Butterworth, Malaysia (only 1200 baht, or $40). 

I walked out of the station, ignoring the cries of the ravening tuk-tuk drivers who yelled that it was too hot and too far to walk anywhere, and crossed the canal. I'd intended to trek northwest to find Wat Traimit, the Temple of the Golden Buddha. I found it quickly, but unexpectedly found that I didn't feel like going inside. You have to pick and choose your wats carefully, you know. But here's where the day began to turn frustrating. 

Nobody in Thailand, or all of Southeast Asia for that matter, believed that (a) I knew where I was going, or (b) that I was capable of getting there under my own power. I stopped a street corner to ask a portly man in a dark blue security uniform about the way to the Temple of the Black Buddha, and he pointed me in the direction with no fuss. But after wandering around aimlessly down Charoen Krung Road for 30-45 minutes with no temple in sight, I began to get annoyed. I sat down on the steps of the Robinson Shopping Center and consulted my map. After a few moments, an elderly Thai gent stepped up to me and asked in perfect English "Where are you going?"

I told my balding, liver-spotted interlocutor that I was trying to reach the temples near the Chao Phraya River. 

"Oh!" he exclaimed. "You must hire a tuk-tuk. He'll take you around for the whole day for a very reasonable price. What did you want to see while you are here?"

I said, "I'd like to see the temples."

He told me that it was no good—today was a "Big Buddha Day" and all the temples would be jam-packed with celebrants and gawking foreigners. 

"You really must get out of the city," he admonished. 

"I don't know what's out th—"

"All of the most beautiful things are to be found there: the floating markets, the crocodile farm, the rose garden, and the ruins of the ancient capital."

"I don't think I—"

"You can hire a tuk-tuk to take you around the city for only 30 baht per hour!"

"I believe I'd rather—"

"You should also stop by the fashion district. You want to get new clothes, right? All the best tailors can  be found there."

"I don't need any—"

"Here, come this way. We'll hire a tuk-tuk to take you to a tour company where you can book a tour."

I tried to demur. I tried to protest. I tried to balk. All to no avail: the Thai gent took me by the elbow and steered me toward a waiting line of lime-green tuk-tuks at the curb, and fell to haggling in Thai with the driver, a young man with a shock of black hair and a paunchy stomach. Then, without knowing how, I was inside the vehicle and we were rocketing through traffic. A few minutes later I stood outside a blue-painted shopfront with five jaunty stone steps leading up to the threshold. In the dim interior I could make out other foreigners sitting at desks, and on the other side Thai clerks who were taking notes and making suggestions and gestures. 

Oh well, I thought. I don't really have anything planned for Day 3 anyway. 

I walked in. The kindly old lady behind the counter, her shoulder-length hair dyed ebony and her insectoid eyes magnified by thick spectacles, waited patiently while I pored over the catalog. I booked a tour to Kanchanaburi, the province northeast of Bangkok near the Burmese border: the River Kwai Bridge, the floating markets, and something called the "tiger temple." It looked promising and only cost 2,200 baht (around $70 at the time). The River Kwai Bridge was actually on my Thailand bucket list, but I hadn't figured it was so close to Bangkok. This was going to be exciting. 

Then the tuk-tuk driver took me to MBK, a fashionable men's clothing boutique in the tailor district. I didn't even set foot on the sidewalk. I'd been warned about this kind of thing. The doorman and the proprietor both came out of the glass doors to try to cajole me inside, but I stayed put. I looked my tuk-tuk driver square in the back of the head and said, "No way. I hate shopping. That was the old man's idea, not mine." I ignored every attempt by the driver and the shop owner to entice me from my entrenched position. Instead, I calmly and civilly requested to be taken to the nearest foodie neighborhood. That royally pissed off my driver. At the time, I wasn't sure why, but then I realized that tuk-tuk drivers usually get a commission from shop owners for delivering customers to their doors. I had just cheated my driver of his bonus, and now he was snorting and looking for any excuse to buck me off. Testily he drove me to the seediest, dirtiest, loneliest, most dubious-looking streetside eatery in all Bangkok: a few dingy tables with cigarette-scarred plastic tablecloths, meats fried into blackened oblivion, desiccated-looking vegetables, flies, heaps of refuse, scrawny women and sinister customers lurking in the shadows beneath rain-stained awnings. I was just glad to be out of the damn tuk-tuk, and the feeling was mutual. 

"After you eat, where you go?" the driver asked as I stepped out of his rig.
"Here," I said, pointing to my hostel on the map.
"Too far," he said.
Bullshit, I thought. I knew for a fact that we were in the Riverside district and it wasn't but a hop, skip, and a jump to Pretchaburi Road, my hostel's neighborhood.
"You get taxi," the driver continued. "I'm done with you."

That's fine, I was done with him too. I paid him the 100 baht he demanded was never gladder to see the back of anyone. Fuming, I walked a block and grabbed a (blue) tuk-tuk driven by someone who looked like the Southeast Asian version of Ernest P. Worrell. He was older than God and his rig in bad need of service. We coughed, wheezed, and lurched rheumatically through the streets back to Boxpackers, with me holding on for dear life and striving to hold back my temper and the contents of my stomach. The driver only gave me 40 baht change out of the 200 I'd given him, but I didn't care. I practically sprinted back up to my room and the air-conditioned sanctuary of my cubicle and my journals. My laundry was waiting for me, clean but stuffed unfolded into a plastic bag. 

It wasn't even noon yet. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Siem Reap to Bangkok

I was a bit delayed getting out of Siem Reap. I'd asked the front desk of the King Boutique Hotel to book me a ticket with Nattakan, the bus company which ran the direct Siem Reap-to-Bangkok route (and for just $30!). 

Well, the price was right. Nobody showed up to get me at eight o'clock, so the hotel manager made a call. Twenty minutes later a tuk-tuk showed up to get me to the bus, and a harried-looking young Cambodian woman in business casual took my name and money and helped me stick my luggage in the cargo compartment. The seat I'd reserved was taken, so I sat in the very back of the bus near the lavatory, which suited me just fine. We pulled out of Siem Reap at 8:20 (twenty minutes late). "Looks like this company couldn't find its ass with two hands and a flashlight," I wrote in my journal. 

Matters improved by 10:45, when we hit Poipet. The Thai-Cambodian border was one of the few things about the trip I'd been dreading. I'd heard that Poipet was about as seedy as Cambodia gets, with scammers and four-flushers and pickpockets on every street and around every corner. Worse yet were the rumored passport scams and false visa sellers. Our faithful bus crew spared us that hassle. They steered us dauntlessly through the milling crowd of Thais, Cambodians, Vietnamese, Laotians, Indians, and Chinese at the border, lined us all up in neat rows in front of the actual, factual visa office, and then led us down a kilometer of dusty road, through a series of impressive gates, and over a bridge (which the Brits had paid for and the Thais had built) and into Thailand proper. I was one of the first of the bus passengers through, so I had to wait around in the hot, breezy, overcast day on the much cleaner Thai side for everyone else to pass through. I remember having to pee very badly as I watched heavy trucks loaded with manufactured goods and timber lumber to and fro along the unpaved road and across the border. 

After a microwave lunch aboard the bus, I began to nod off. We breezed through eastern Thailand, which was far cleaner, better kept, and spacier than Cambodia had been. Landscaped medians lined the highways and there wasn't a single piece of garbage in sight. The skinny Brahman cows had disappeared, as had the hammocks; now we saw neat condominiums and farmhouses with green and well-tended rice fields beside them. The only evidence of the coup was the occasional roadblock, where a uniformed military policeman with a crisp camouflage uniform and a pistol at his hip would clamber aboard, give us all a hard look, and then wave the bus onward. I have no idea what the purpose of these roadblocks was. Security? Searching for fugitive insurgents? Keeping tabs on the movements of people around the countryside? I suppose I'll never know, because I was soon distracted by our arrival in Bangkok. 

The place was huge. It took us 30-40 minutes to get from the city's eastern limits to the northern bus terminal. On a highway. The skyline was quite impressive, too: whereas most cities are just a cluster of skyscrapers surrounded by squatter suburbs, Bangkok seemed to be an unending sea of four- and five-story buildings with the occasional impressive spire of a high-rise thrusting up out of it, some of them so far away from the center of town that they were barely visible in the thin blue haze. 

At the northern terminal I leaped off the bus, grabbed my pack out of the storage compartment, and tried to get ahead of the press for taxicabs. Fortunately there were enough hot pink cabs outside the station gates to ferry a convention downtown. One brown, skinny, middle-aged gent with a baseball cap and a polo shirt, whose license card proclaimed him to be a Mr. Senkham, snatched me up and led me to his car. I could barely understand his friendly questions ("You from Rob Angelit?"). I dumped my stuff in the back seat and climbed into the front. With his crooked teeth showing, Senkham handed me his rate card. Yep, Thailand was definitely a richer country than Vietnam or Cambodia: a simple ride into town would be 1200 baht, or nearly $40 American. My jaw hit the floor. Even the Skyliner from Narita Airport to Ueno Station in Tokyo didn't cost that much. My hand clamped down on the door handle and I was about to bail out when Mr. Senkham said "No better rate, boss. All standard." 

It didn't even occur to me to argue or haggle. Tired and bedraggled and just wanting to get to Bangkok already, I closed the door and nodded my head in defeat. Off we went. Forty minutes and forty dollars later, I was standing outside of my hostel, Boxpackers. Mr. Senkham happily took my money and rocketed off. I didn't have enough Thai baht, so I gave him forty U.S. dollars. I didn't tip him, but since 1200 baht was $38.72 in July of 2014, he got a tip and he knew it. 

I had to fill out some silly questionnaire and a thousand other forms at the front desk, but then I got my key and headed upstairs. 

I climbed into my surprisingly spacious cubicle, closed the curtain, updated my journals, remembered that I was thirsty and hungry and went back downstairs and around the corner to the 7-11 for some water and snacks, and then came back upstairs and went to bed. 

The next day would prove to be a very aggravating day...with an unexpected reward at the end. Stay tuned.