Bangkok Part 2: Bangcockier

After a surprisingly restorative stop in Chiang Mai, we headed onward to Bangkok, to fit in one more day of that highly modern, mildly impenetrable city, before going further south to Malaysia and Singapore. To shake things up a bit, though, we travelled by train, since we tend to love trains, and they are a good way to see parts of the countryside you might otherwise miss. Plus, people are weird as shit on trains.

Since the ride was going to be an overnight train, though, we first made a Cultural Excursion to the local supermarket, something I always enjoy. Maybe in another 10 years seeing the combination of undiscovered-to-me types of local green vegetables and the weird consumer food products each country invents will get old, but not yet. And until then, I’ll have me some Red Skin Peanuts Larb Flavor, thank you very much.

After Page handled some uncomfortably aptly named custard apples (100% like a fleshy foam-rubber children’s toy), we lugged our stash to the train station. The day before, in a soulful, cultural-sharing mission, the kind train-agent-policeman helped me understand my extremely meager booking options for our upcoming train ride. Whoops! After I made Page’s hair stand on end by breaking the language barrier hundreds of times, like a blowfish thrown repeatedly at a taut membrane composed of the station agent’s patience, the two of us managed to work out that there were two sleeper seats on the second-class, non-express 3:30 PM sleeper train the next day, and not much else. I’ll take it! (I mean, seriously, I spent 45 minutes hectoring this poor guy as he navigated a VT100-based terminal interface in Windows 2000 literally connected to a 9600 baud modem. Which failed 4 times during our negotiation, each time causing the poor guy to have to get up, cross the room, and flip a metal toggle switch hooked up to some jury-rigged plastic box. Man. I do not want this guy’s job.) Most of our conversation during this negotiation was some broken-record repeat of: “Oh, sorry, but, could you check train 23 again? On Tuesday? Yes, Tuesday? <wait 3 minutes> Oh, I meant first-class. Sorry. <wait 2 minutes> Oh, how do you tell if the seats are together again? <cranes neck to look inside metal bars of window>”.

Regardless, it did get sorted out, and the seats were totally fine. How this world holds together sometimes, I do not know.

The journey itself was mostly pleasant, but with a side of mild disappointment salad. I think I was hoping to see a bit more pretty stuff as we went, but the windows were dirty and dusty, so you couldn’t see a whole lot. The train was comfortable enough, but quarters were a little close, and there was some not-friendly jostling for places to put your luggage with the local folks, and accompanying mild glares. All in all, the trip was harmless, with occasionally nice (blurry) sights, and had no problems, but it wasn’t really a highlight.

And then: Bangkok. This time we stayed in a designer-y hostel that has some private rooms with private baths available, and it was actually perfect: clean, modern, fun, and directly adjoining the Skytrain. (Lub.d Siam Square, $66 per night.) Because we’d been traveling a lot, and we were still going to be traveling a lot more, we resolved to take it easy and just enjoy the day (Success Quotient: 4d / Mild).

The first thing we did, and probably my highlight of the day, was to go to the OTK Market. The market (real name is Aw Taw Kaw / Or Tor Kor, depending on phonic preferences) is a large, sort-of-high-end open air fresh market, and is reputed to be the nicest market in Bangkok, and where restaurant chefs shop for their daily haul. What I can tell you is that it was awesome: super clean, super fresh, amazing produce, and amazing food court. I think the best touchpoint I can provide is that it is like a much, much larger, more serious Ferry Building Farmer’s Market with Asian produce and foods. Rad.

So, that was fun. Then, in no particular order, we went back to Ruen Nuad for an amazing $5 massage, went to a not-so-great Museum of the Multimedia Here Is What It Means To Be Thai Except We Sorta Tapered Off Sorry, and then watched the Royal Wedding at the hostel bar. Then, Pager had the brilliant idea that we should go to a movie, since it would be relaxing, A, and B, because Bangkok has crazy-insane high end VIP movie theaters that have bars, private lounges, crazy recliner seats, and let you eat crazy food and noodles while watching the film.

Done! We had the crazy free green cocktail and mega-reclined to the smooth stylings of Source Code. And that’s how Bangkok leaves you feeling: weird.

( See all Bangkok redux photos. )

The Sundowner Report, Episode 1

Inaugurating a maybe occasional feature, in which we talk at you, watch the resulting video, and post it in spite of the fact that it’s excruciating to watch yourself on video. Page would like it known that she is sending away for a new voice and head. Also that she has never been to either Nantucket or Manchester, England. Anyway: Coming to you not-live, from Chiang Mai, Thailand!

Does Chiang Mai suck?

If you’ve ever planned an extended trip around southeast Asia, you may know that Lonely Planet’s “Southeast Asia on a Shoestring” offers several proposed itineraries. One focuses on beaches, another on the former spice-trade route around Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore – and then there’s what they call the traditional southeast Asian tour, starting in Bangkok, wending east through Cambodia and then taking Vietnam from the bottom to the top, flying west into Laos and circling back south through Chiang Mai to Bangkok, before flying further south to either Malaysia or Singapore. This latter course is more or less the one we followed.

Sometimes we’d feel self-conscious about traveling by the book – and it’s true that we did occasionally see some white faces in a new city that we’d already glimpsed in a previous one. But it saved us a lot of research and planning time, and when we wanted to deviate, of course, we did.

Our first port of call – and first deviation from the traditional route — was the gorgeous, mosquito-replete isle of Ko Phi Phi, off the west coast of south-central Thailand. We were just getting our legs under us at that point, working through jet lag and figuring out how to say hello and thank you in Thai. We made limited conversation with the hotel staff, all of whom seemed to work six 16-hour days a week. Our favorite was Pai, a sort of morose waiter guy. We’d sit looking out at the water before dinner, and he would shuffle over like Eeyore, if Eeyore could carry a tray of beers. We did not have a lot of shared language in common, so it was hard to get to know him very well. (Added to the fact that we were just two in a constant revolving door of foreign hotel guests arriving on his shore, and probably not of great individual interest to him.) But we did manage to learn that yes, he worked a lot. And that for travel in Thailand, he recommended visiting the north: Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai. So, two votes for Chiang Mai (and surrounds).

Fast forward a couple of weeks, and we’re in Luang Prabang, assessing our options. Turns out there’s a daily LP—>Chiang Mai flight on a smallish prop plane belonging to Laos Airlines, which Lonely Planet endorses as having “a rapidly improving safety record.” I gave myself a stern talking-to and climbed aboard. (And it was fine, obviously, as it always is, but a phobia is as intransigent as a two-year-old, and requires a lot of cajoling and discipline.)

Annnnd — our first day in Chiang Mai was not a huge success. The city had been described to us as the cultural heart of Thailand, with an old walled city center and a good university. But upon arrival it seemed kind of like an endless strip mall with temples, and chockablock with advertisements for things to do outside Chiang Mai. Economically, the city seemed oriented around helping tourists go bungee jumping. Or pay for sex. All the sex tourists we had been told to expect but ultimately not encountered in Phnom Penh — possibly due to Khmer New Year— were out in force in Chiang Mai, flirting creepily with dressed-up Thai ladies in the bars and massage parlors that exist for this purpose. I’d rather that sex commerce be legal and regulated than clandestine, so officially all this should be fine with me, but these particular examples of the phenomenon felt gross.

Plus, I stupidly tripped on some obstacle-course feature of the sidewalk and twisted my ankle, painfully though not seriously. I was still able to walk, but being minorly injured took most outdoorsy activities off the table.

We did have some delicious khao soy and some tasty curries that day, and located the train station and procured second-class tickets on a night train to Bangkok for later in the week. After these modest successes, though, we got some beers and — with apologies to Pai — debated whether we should leave early.

However, as you may have guessed, matters improved. And, having managed to overcome our bad attitudes and enjoy Chiang Mai, I think we developed extra affection for it. Chiang Mai was our underdog, falling in the late middle of our nomadic April, and when we found things to love it felt like we and the city had achieved a mutual triumph.

So, here’s what to do in Chiang Mai, if you ever happen to be a) there and b) us.

Visit temples. Really! We almost didn’t get it up to visit many temples in Chiang Mai, having seen our fair share over the previous couple of weeks. But the ones we visited in Chiang Mai were interesting and unusual, and among our favorites of the trip. I think this may be part of the “cultural heart of Thailand” thing we failed to notice initially. Gorgeous murals, a beautiful teak-and-gilt temple that was one of the most beautiful we’d ever seen, and the stupifyingly huge, 600-year-old stupa of Wat Chedi Luang. The stupa was once the tallest building in the Lanna kingdom, and has a wonderful palpable eerie energy.

Take songthaew. Taxis in Chiang Mai are savvy about overcharging tourists, and tuk-tuks are fine but not really up to the traffic and scope of the city. Plus they’re not much cheaper. Enter the songthaew, basically a covered pickup truck with benches in the back – they’re cheap, they’re everywhere, and locals actually take them. And you can watch the world go by out the back of the truck. Really really fun.

Find the local eating establishment with the least pleasant ambience and eat there. While in Chiang Mai Kevin and I talked about our respective traveling strengths and weaknesses. I would say that my strengths are a decent knack for languages and for the pidgin-and-miming communication that kicks in when language runs out; and a facility for tasks related to planning and organizing. My weaknesses are significant: I am anxious in the face of the unknown and often assume that things will go wrong; I get shy at all the wrong moments and hate bargaining; I have a tendency to want to throw money at all problems; and I want stuff to be cute.

All of which is to say: When in Thailand, do not let me pick your restaurant. I had one of the best meals of my life in one of the least attractive settings: a humid, windowless, semi-underground concrete food court in the Warorot market. At one point one of the exceedingly nice Thai cook ladies came over and took one of my forks, gave it a cursory wipe with a sodden rag, and handed it to another customer. But the food was just transcendently fantastic, and I’m so glad I didn’t miss it. (So maybe there is one more strength to add to my list: I am tolerant of mystery meats, and not overly concerned about hygiene.)

Anyway, here are all of our pictures of Chiang Mai, culminating abruptly in our visit to this very food court.

P.S. What are Kevin’s strengths and weaknesses, you ask? Well. I would list his strengths as: A big supply of dogged persistence in the face of obstacles, which often makes the difference between having an awesome new experience and missing it. A chivalrous generosity to his travel partner, whether in the form of offering to carry her extra stuff or willingness to ask for directions, make restaurant bookings and bargain about fares, despite the fact that it’s harder for him to understand what people are saying. A contagious excitement and appetite for new experiences, particularly those that relate to food. And an openness to being moved by things, whether beautiful or awful. Weaknesses: Not very organization-minded and inclined to leave his dirty clothes on the floor; sometimes too attached to a particular vision of how things might go and thus inflexible when the need for a change of plan arises; reluctant to snack if the snack options are less than spectacular; and – this becomes problematic more often than you’d think – totally intolerant of bath gel. It’s soap or nothing, baby, and that’s just the way it is. On the whole, though, I think you can tell that I’m getting the good end of this deal.

Dock one point from the Germans

The text, in reprint:

“Wow, an amazing place!” ... Naomi, UK

“Unbelievable!” ... Gina, Australia

“I proposed to my girlfriend in the back of the ice tuk-tuk!” ... Michael, Germany

Current hit movie in Bangkok

Mindfulness and Murder. A story of drug trade, betrayal, and murder by a group of monks in a Buddhist temple. Page corner: “Also there’s a snake.”

A Japanese(-ish) poem on Thai massage

So the massage won out over the tour of the red-light district. Victory is mine! Here is a little haiku in honor of my triumph.

Ode to Ruen Nuad

Pulverizing, cheap,
heavenly Thai massage. Quick:
Where’s Victoria?

Mekhong Whiskey

Mekhong whiskey. Local drink of Thailand. Sometimes known as Songsam, a particular high-quality brand thereof.

More properly called Mekhong Thai rum, due to sugar cane origins and process.

Tasting notes: dry, peppery, faint notes of cinnamon. No peat or smoke. Ultimately light-tasting. Resembles a much less sweet Irish Whiskey.

Bangkok: The lie and how we told it

April 10th:
Afternoon: Arrive from Phuket
Evening: Chinatown food stands
Late: The Dome Skybar

April 11th:
Morning: Grand Palace & Reclining Buddha
Noon: Lunch at Chote Chitr
Afternoon: Bongo Shopping Mall (Siam Sq.)
Evening: Madcap search for, then dinner at, Krua Apsorn
Late: Arun Residence bar along river

April 12th:
Morning: Brunch at Kuppa, Sukhumvit
Noon: Jim Thompson’s house tour
Afternoon: Thai Massage at Ruen Nuad: $11
Dusk: Mandarin Oriental for sunset cocktail
Evening: Dinner at Bo.lan

Now, off to Cambodia.

See all Bangkok photos, with exciting caption commentary.

Bangkok Dangerous (and the danger is heatstroke)

Greetings from Bangkok, which apparently is called the Angel City!

If the consensus on Ko Phi Phi is that it’s unfairly blessed with natural beauty, the consensus on Bangkok is that one should slip its sweaty clutches as swiftly as possible. Huge, hot, congested, polluted, and bleh seem to be its most common descriptors. “Get out of Bangkok,” a San Francisco salesgirl said urgently when the subject came up, ten seconds into a nineteen-second conversation.

What place could live up to that kind of bad press? Bangkok is pretty cool actually (though understand that by “cool” I mean “yes very rad but so muggy that your clothes feel like they’re trying to soak into your bloodstream by way of your skin”).

We spent our first 24 hours on the must-do list: street food, drinks at a rooftop bar on the 65th floor of a skyscraper, visiting Thai historic sites like the Grand Palace (home of the Emerald Buddha) and Wat Pho (home of the Reclining Buddha), and riding the ferry up and down the Chao Phraya river. Pictures coming, but meanwhile here are a couple of minor travel pitfalls.

Touts. All the guidebooks warn of ostensibly helpful locals looking to make money on your tourist ignorance — overcharging, trying to get you to go on a “gem tour,” etc. — but for some reason I was still surprised when it proved true. “Grand Palace closed today,” a man on the street said mournfully (and untruthfully). “Come this way, better palace!” When I shook my head, he was pretty indignant for someone trying to rip me off, and invited me to “go to the moon!” We also had a cab driver who, upon hearing we were headed to Cambodia next, offered to drive us there for an improbably low rate. When we declined, he pretended not to know our local destination after all and pulled over for us to get out of his cab.

The Thai written language. As you’ll know from decorations in your local Thai place, it’s very beautiful, like musical notes rendered in wrought iron. But totally opaque to us, of course. Naturally times come when it would be nice to be able to decipher a little. Like, Kevin got a local SIM card for his phone, and now gets a text in Thai every few hours, helpfully telling him… something, we’ve no idea what. Google maps sometimes knows where our restaurant is but chooses that moment to show us the street names in Thai, which is very reasonable considering we’re in Thailand, but… it’s all Thai to us. And the taxis have a little lighted indicator to show whether they’re free. We squint at the red LED display as a cab zooms toward us. “Is that… squiggly thing? Or is it other squiggly thing?”

So, we’re bumbling around. Today will be a tug-of-war between things Page wants to do and things Kevin wants to do. Will it be Thai massages, or a tour of the red-light district? Stay tuned!

Applying World Understanding to Ko Phi Phi

First: my wife is good at this.

Second: One time when I’d had a few drinks and was out for Page’s birthday, I tipsily drew a line between people who appreciate the finer things about other cultures and those who don’t, and called it “World Understanding.” About ten seconds later, I realized it was the most pretentious thing I have ever said. So, to be clear, in this post (and in all future posts) I am the Supreme World Understander.

Third: what to say about Ko Phi Phi? After five days, no one thing stands out. It is tremendously beautiful. It feels fairly remote, though in truth there’s a fair amount of facilities. The central town area on the other side of the island (a orange-skinned, white-dreadlocked hell of desperate pheromones ice-blended with acute capitalism) is maybe six blocks in total size, and presumably has most things you need. But the town feels far away.

It is an island, and in the old sense: there’s no cars, no roads, and everything is via water taxi. In the area we were in, a more remote northern section of the island that’s unconnected to the rest, our stretch of beach had perhaps five little hotels, and maybe three or four shack-like local businesses, including a small outdoor restaurant and bar. The feeling is sea shanty, and in a nice way: casual, friendly, away from things. It reminded me of Isla Holbox.

The water (as Page has mentioned) is a bathtub.

It’s hot. I mean, really hot. The hottest I’ve ever experienced. And I’ve been in Hong Kong on what I was told was the hottest day of the year, and I grew up in a place that regularly hit 110 degrees F. It was so hot that if you stay in the shade on the beach, and you thoughtfully get in the water to cool down every 30 minutes, by 1 or 2 PM you still seriously consider, then wisely decide to go inside for an afternoon siesta / internet research sojourn. With all that said, though, I still enjoyed the heat. It was just mildly uncomfortable enough to make me constantly appreciate the fact that I was on vacation.

But all of this probably doesn’t do justice to how beautiful the area is. The water, sky, and horizon switch between light azure and emerald as the day goes on. The cedar smell of the teak longtail boats, with colorful flower garlands on the prow, pointing between top-heavy, surreal limestone karsts. It is nice, man.

Perhaps my favorite part of Ko Phi Phi was the remote beach of La Na Bay. Our helpful hotel-non-Thai-person-who-pointedly-makes-friends-with-you-because-this-is-a-high-service-sort-of-place told us there was a hidden cinderblock path along the ridge of the island, cutting through the jungle, that would let us walk to a beautiful secluded beach. The next day, we packed a day-satchel and dutifully checked it out. When we finally got there, we emerged on a huge, crescent bay, and there was not a soul there. The water was even stiller, even more bathtub-like than the other side of the island (how is this possible?), and we had a whole bay the size of a small city completely to ourselves. I floated in the middle of the water for a long time, my eyes fixed on the horizon between the two arms of the bay’s crescent, the water flat as a pale blue sheet. That was the first time on the trip that I felt madd relaxed.