Feel free to grab and zoom.
Ceasing to do evil,
Cultivating the good,
Purifying the heart,
This is the teaching of the Buddhas.
Monday/Tuesday, March 26/27
Four in the morning. Lake Street is quiet, and wet with a light spring snow. Travel is life. Train to the airport and it's fond rigmarole. We rise. I swear I saw a meteor crater in the Canadian Rockies. A pause in Seattle. We rise again, into persistent cloud. It breaks to reveal a humble volcano, its slopes white with snow, presiding over a patchwork of farms and villages on the coast of the Sea of Japan. A pause in Seoul, whose spacious, glittering, tinkling, Jetsons airport is eerily sedate. We rise, and catch up with the sunset at last over the East China Sea. Touchdown Bangkok. 26 hours flight time with layovers, plus lead time, preceded by insomnia. Urk. I'm through customs by 10:00. I collect some bahts from the ATM, and gird myself to venture into the city and get myself into a bed as soon as possible. Knowing I'd be coming in late and catatonic, I'd booked a hotel that was close and convenient to the airport train. This also meant it was within the reaches of one of the red light districts, a district which, though surely wicked, was reported to be populated, well-lit, and safe for clueless foreigners with bags on their backs. So, train and a short metro link to the Sukhumvit station. I emerge to a swarm of urbanity. The air is hot and heavy. The neighborhood is indeed very lascivious, but regular city fun is mixed in, with commerce, couples, etc. I walk right past the Ambassador, but find it in due course. Poshest lobby ever. Fifty bucks. Bangkok. Wow. Travel is life. Details to follow.
Streets of Bangkok
Wednesday, March 28
Now, to shake off my flight funk and integrate myself into Bangkok. I have a look at my neighborhood, which is of big towers, big commerce, big hotels, and big entertainment along a thundering main drag, a bit frowsier down the side streets. Subway to the end of the line in Chinatown. (Bangkok has got a nice subway line and elevated train, but they don't reach very far into the older part of town). From there, I commence a lot of pavement pounding. Through Chinatown and streets beyond, soaking it all in. To and through the Banglamphu neighborhood, which has a reportedly over the top backpacker ghetto. I was thinking I'd relocate there, as more fitting for the likes of me than the luxurious, expensive, and far-flung digs I'm in right now. The heart of the neighborhood was indeed way over the top with tourist schlock, and I saw no reason to stay there. But there were milder and cooler peripheries which will do. More pavement pounding. I pause for a Thai massage (A long-standing tradition, and a real Thai thing - not to be confused with soapy/sexy massage - the signage keeps it clear). The legends about its intensity are true, and I've got a huge, knotty bruise on my calf to prove it. My masseuse coached my Thai pronunciation as she pinched, pulled, and beat me half to death. Man that was good. I was seriously refreshed for more pavement pounding. My effort to shorten my walk back by using the public transportation boats that move people between the piers along the river failed comically, as I was merely ferried to the other side, and, inevitably, back again. What pier I was at wasn't entirely clear, and l left figuring it out to another day. So, running the gauntlet of waiting and eager tuk tuk drivers (why pay them to sit in rush hour traffic), to and though Chinatown, where I got mildly lost, but trusted to my compass. I'd been thinking of sitting down to street cookery, but it was time for the operators to start shutting down and feed the family. To the end-of-the-line subway station, and to my hotel, where I pause, think of stepping out again to a restaurant, but went to bed fasting, as I was falling asleep on my feet. (The rigors of travel always moderates my natural gluttony. Eat less, savor more. This day I was sustained by a bagel and a plastic cup of watermelon chunks. The watermelonmongress ripped me off, by the way. We both felt bad about it. But in time, I'll get a sense of the baht and its value).
Thursday, March 29
Today to be a variation on yesterday, with less walking and more public transportation. So at the end of the subway line, I engage a tuk tuk to get me to the pier in Chinatown. Sixty baht seemed reasonable. But it turned out that he'd brought me to the facilities of some goddam tour boat. (I had a map I could have pointed to and forestalled this). When l figured this out, I withdrew and negotiated with another tuk tuk driver near the entrance. But he wanted one hundred baht for a shorter distance. So I shook him off (no easy task, though amiable on both sides), and commenced my usual walking. Out on the street, I get to talking with another tuk tuk driver, who also wanted one hundred baht. But his English was up to the task of explaining that my previous guy's low rate depended on the kickback he gets from the tour boat people. It all makes sense. So I engage this guy to get me to the public pier. From there, the commuter boat takes me pier to pier around the great bend of the Chao Phraya river. Definitely the way to get around Bangkok. I get off at the north end of my ambling zone. There's a canal here that's part of the public transportation system, and that could in theory get me all the way back to Chinatown. No one at the dock but the ticket lady under her awning. We did a good job with the phrasebook, but with departures only at one and six, it would not be timely for me. (Pretty clear, I think, but one wonders why she needs to sit around all day like that). So I proceed with a finer grained amble of Banglamphu, and mellowed out in its quieter streets. There I am gently touted into an alley-side eatery for garlic chicken and rice. The proprietress helped me with my Thai, as I helped her husband with his English, which she was encouraging him to improve. Further ambles, ultimately back to one of the docks, for the voyage back to Chinatown. From its big fat river, Bangkok bristles with towers and stately wats. Mildly lost in Chinatown again. Subway to my neighborhood. I even got mildly lost there, that is lost in a travel reverie, as I walked right past my turn into unfamiliar territory. Straightened out in due course, and back to my hotel.
Images of the Buddha
Friday, March 30
Time to venture out into the provinces. (A day earlier than I'd originally planned. That, and inertia, had kept me a third night in the luxurious Ambassador - rather than a third and fourth night at somewhere cheaper). Elevated train to the stop for the bus depot. The depot is not terribly far away, but there's no shuttle service. Weird. A taxi got me there. I get a ticket for Sukhothai, and slowed down for a late bus depot breakfast. I pointed out a delicious looking, steaming pile of something to one of the food court ladies, and thus got entangled in some sort of food court voucher system. I got this worked out with the voucher booth lady, and returned to the food court lady. She'd been a little irritated with me, but I warmed her up with my melodious Thai, and so enfolded her tenderly unto my bosom. That dish, however, was not well guessed at. Spicy enough to tolerate, but not the best setup for a seven hour bus journey. But I eat what's put in front of me when I travel, come what may. Embark at 12:30, in a rather tired double decker. In ten minutes that concave seat back was killing me. Strangely, my body gave up suffering in the latter part of the journey. We had a real downpour for about two hours. The landscape was interesting, if not exactly scenic. A land of use and disuse, with nature stepping back in when man had stepped back. There were big, square puddles prepared for the rice. Where it was coming up, it was limey green and plush. Scattered trees and fields, flat, but for an otherworldly eruption of vertical rock somewhere short of Kamphaeng Phet. Arrive Sukhothai after dark, a travel no-no due to my late start. It's a couple of miles from the bus station to the middle of town, so I engage a songthaew to get me there. (A songthaew is a heavily modified, i.e., cut apart, pickup or van, open and covered, with two long benches on the sides of the bed - serving various public transportation needs). Dropped off by the river bridge, I make my little orientation/hotel search walk, decline a place I looked at, and ended up in a room in a little outbuilding setup beyond the canal, and well away from traffic noise. Thirteen bucks, paying three extra for the AC. One can take the heat, but man is the air drinkable. Out to dine at a street side, cart and plastic table operation. Nothing spicy, just savory beyond compare. Ferocious Thai boxing on the tube. Three bucks, most of that the beer. I have another big beer outside at my hotel, and listen to the many birds and creatures. Quite a contrast to roaring Bangkok. (But to be fair to Bangkok, when one was away from the thunder zones, the large and vocal non-human population of the city made itself heard).
Saturday, March 31
I look over the town a bit, the market street near my hotel, the gorgeous, modern, local wat, (temple building, or complex of buildings) all sparkly with primary colors, and with a serene golden Buddha, and the river, shrunken and muddy at present, with embankment work going on. The flood wall suggests what this muddy ditch may become in the rainy season. Breakfast in a farang-friendly place. (Breakfast itself I think is an alien concept, much less bacon and eggs, or the "continental". A farang is a foreigner of western origin, i.e., white person. Compare "gringo"). Today's excursion to be a visit to the Old City of Sukhothai, an historical park eight miles out of modern Sukhothai, a vast site preserving the remains of the capital of a powerful, 13th and 14th century Thai state. I get aboard the public songthaew for the thirty minute ride out to the site. Past the ticket office and off for an amble through the very expansive grounds, scattered with old Hindu/Buddhist architecture. I swing wide toward the peripheries first, and take it all in slowly. I am drawn to yonder chedi (or stupa - a bell shaped edifice with a spire), and catch sight of the meditative profile of the Lord Buddha himself. I find myself moved, and my approach becomes religious. He is in the seated posture in front of the chedi, and his visage is, for lack of a better word, serene. I consider once again whether it's too late to take up the eight-fold path (well, I do try to be mindful of mindfulness). This was to be the first of many awesome Buddha images. I continued a slow, reverent amble, through scattered ruins, trying to get a little sense of what all this meant when the city was thriving. An hour of rain passed through, which I spent pleasantly in the hollow interior of the base of a prang (a corn cob-like edifice, a Khmer thing with Hindu motifs, predating the Buddhist stuff by a few centuries). The gentle rain clears, and I continue, culminating my amble among the stately brick and stucco ruins of Wat Mahathat, with its many Buddha images. I take my leave. That was then and this is now. I find it not unfitting that this place, having fulfilled its original purpose, should now be wandered and wondered at by farangs and Thai families in tourist trollies or on rented bicycles. While waiting for the songthaew, I made the little old ladies who sold me a bottle of cold water laugh when my "kow jai" indicated that I understood that they were remarking about my height. Back into town. Festivities are underway. On the other side of the river, a traditional, if amplified, band is playing, and the "night market" street is packed with food stalls and seemingly the entire population. Aiming to sit down, I turned a corner or two, and found more serene, streetside place in which to dine, and digest the day's experiences.
Sunday, April 1
Today's excursion to be to the outer, less touristed zones of the park, this time by bicycle. Songthaew back to the main park entrance, where bikes are for rent for 30 baht (one buck). Off I ride to the north zone, to visit Wat Phra Phai Luang, another early Khmer edifice, with one ornate prang of three still standing, and with two fine Buddha images. Thence to the "big Buddha", big as in fifty feet tall, enclosed in his mondrop (that is, a big enclosure), and so not fully visible until you enter. Flower offerings lay at his feet and incense was burning, indicating that this 700 year old image in a historical park still has an active and regular religious draw. It was interesting to note the behavior of the Thais, some offering flowers and kneeling in prayer, others having photos clicked of them with Big Buddha, something I'd read was a no-no. I point the bike for the western zone, first along a bit of a traffic road, then a placid, country road, with open forest and birdsong, and calf-high rice in dry fields, and the brick foundations of many an old wat. The high point, literally, was Wat Saphan Hin, with a standing Buddha image atop a 600 foot hill. I park the bike and make this ascent, along a raised stone path, to pay my respects and survey the flat plain below, with all its unknowable, to me anyway, significance. I ride the traffic road back to the main part of the park, and turn down the narrow country road that follows a winding canal. My original ambition had been to follow this for miles before turning back, but I now knew that that would have to be curtailed, as I was getting sore. That bike and my body were utterly unsuited to each other (standing on the peddles was the posture least abusive to my muscle groups). Still, I took it a while longer, aiming for Wat Chang Lom, and figuring I'd short cut back along the main road. Then that venerable old beater of a bike got a flat (unlucky). So I skipped the wat, got over the canal on a nearby bridge (lucky), and walked the bike back on the road, no more than a mile. Back to town on the songthaew. I explore the other side of the river some, and marvel at the extent of the street cookery. The birds on the wires in the dusk are screaming even louder than the traffic. Ducking into a religious compound, I observe a swarm of eight-year-olds in their saffron robes, giggling as they jump for the highest buttons on a coke machine. I've seen plenty of monks so far in Thailand, but aren't these guys a little young for the monastic life? But I imagine I'm missing something. My street meal venture lost the spice gamble. The toxic cloud blowing off the wok should have clued me in. (Finally found the right word for spicy: "phet". And no/not is "mai"). Anyway, I followed that up later with a cup of fried crickets (the little buggers must be a delicacy - 20 baht!). Then for dessert, what looked like a pounded chicken breast on a stick, but which turned out to be ribs. Delicious, but I made a mess of myself.
Monday, April 2
As I'll be moving on very early tomorrow morning, I thought it wise to practice the short cut to the bus station suggested by google maps. So, through the streets along the canal and riverside of my quiet neighborhood, the neighbors helping me along, and cutting through an unlikely path to the bus station. I buy a ticket for the 6:40, and check out everything useful, including the rest rooms, as I'll be in a get up and go and wait mode. (A traditional setup - I've planned my adaptations should I need to make use). A twelve minute walk back to my hotel. Very elegant, and no need to find an early tuk tuk to roar me way the heck out to the major intersection, and back up another thoroughfare). After another farang friendly breakfast, I'm off for the day's excursion, another bike ride, this time further east along the canal from Old Sukhothai. Songthaew back the the park entrance, where I again rent a bike, this time making sure I could raise the seat. Back through yesterday's rural scenes. I pause at Wat Chang Lom, with its impressive frieze of elephants. I continue, more or less along the stagnant and quite serpentine canal, which now parallels the road between new and old Sukhothai on the other side. A narrow concrete road, very little traffic, bananas just budding, mangoes still small, mostly people's houses on either hand, and spirit houses (temple-like birdhouse-sized things they place on pedestals, to stay on good terms with the spirits they displaced when they built their own houses). In due course, the journey in reverse. Back to town. An early dinner, noodles on the street, and further ambles and samples.
Thunder on the Mekong
Tuesday, April 3
Ah, to get up and go. A comfortable burden on my back, always a welcome presence. Along canal and riverbank, and a narrow alley through a little neighborhood. The bus station comes into view, but unlike in my trial run, a barbed wire gate is blocking the alley. Easily enough circumvented with some acrobatics, but still, with my bus leaving shortly, that kind of thing could really screw a guy. My screwing (and unscrewing) was yet to come. My bus was to be berthed in bay 16. The only bus around was in what looked, kinda sorta, to be bay 15 (bus stations worldwide are unclear about this, with numbered signs hanging ambiguously over 45 degree bays). But I confirm with the driver and get aboard. We rumble away in moments, me wondering if departures ten minutes early was normal in this country. Not. It's a good the thing the ticket lady on board was quick with her rounds, because we hadn't gotten far when she looked at my ticket and gave me to understand that I wasn't on the right bus. (Evidently, the exchange I had had with the driver, which I took to mean "Chiang Rai? Chiang Rai. Chiang Rai? Chiang Rai.", he took to mean, "Chiang Mai? Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai? Chiang Mai." He managed a "sorry" as I got off on the thoroughfare, but I was too flustered to get off a proper "mai pen rai" (no problem). I started my dash back to the bus station, wondering if my bus would respond to an effort to flag it down, when of course a trusty tuk tuk driver swung over to save me. He got me to the station in time to get aboard my ready to go bus, which must have swung into bay 16 out of nowhere, sometime after my wrong bus's 6:30 departure, sucked in its passengers, to depart at 6:45, a comfortable five minutes late. It all worked out for blessed me. Master of travel! Saved me hours of stewing in the bus station and a late arrival in Chiang Rai. For the next eight and a half hours, I neither ate, drank, nor rose from my seat, and fought a constant losing battle to keep my eyes open. Many crazy dream fragments. Again, the landscape more interesting than scenic. Arrive Chiang Rai. Pause, stretch, and restore myself with a fruit juice. I have a triumphant phrasebook conversation with the songthaew guys, and get myself to the other, secondary, provincial bus station. I settled myself nearby, and quickly, for this layover. Breakfast of coffee and confection at five in the afternoon. Now, to banish my bus torture with a Thai message. This one a bit gentler than the first, thank god. Chiang Rai is a medium city, with some tourism and associated dining. But I aimed for a street operation, to try out my newly acquired "mai phet" (not spicy).
Wednesday, April 4
With no particular need to rush, I amble my neighborhood a bit, and linger over a farang breakfast. Two blocks from hotel to the secondary, provincial bus station, and in due course I'm underway, in a real knee cruncher. Mountains on the left, plains on the right. Hour and a half, arrive Chiang Saen. This is a smaller place, eleven thousand. I'll see about lingering here. The tuk tuk guys at the bus stop smile understandingly when I say I'm walking, and do not persist. And walk I do, quite formally, a block or two, to the promenade high above the banks of, savor the word, the Mekong. The river is big and fat, and moving fast and massive. Laos on yonder bank (Thailand gives up its Mekong bank to Burma a few miles upstream). A motley assortment of vessels ply the current. I ponder all this, quite slap happy, over a bottle of cold water and a fruit juice. Centered, refreshed, and hydrated, I give the town the once-over, to preview guidebook hotel prospects, see what else may suggest itself, and to get oriented. (Layout straightforward: main drag forming a T with the river street, with its promenade and its businesses). I'm pleased that my burden is only nineteen pounds, as my amble got a little protracted. Two guidebook suggestions not to be found, two under new names, as I figured out, and few other prospects. But I settled congenially, in a spare, tidy place, quiet, on a second floor, with two doors, east and west, opening to tiled walkways, under eaves to keep out the rain, whichever way the wind blows. Nice. I refresh under the shower, step out to further integrate with the town, step back under gloomy sky, enjoy a thunderous downpour under the eaves, nap..... and out again, at length to dine in an open air, homely operation, with the four year old running around laughing non-stop for an hour, absolutely delighted with absolutely everything. Thunder and torrents in the night.
Thursday, April 5
Today, to sift the town further, and plunder its religious edifices. Chiang Saen was founded as a city in the fourteenth century, and the ruins from that time and later centuries are scattered all over, including many minor sites, as was made clear to me yesterday in my superficial wanderings. First, to the museum, for the usual too much information. Then, a walking tour of the major sights, restored, added to, or more or less maintained all along. Wat Chedi Luang, adjacent to the museum, with a temple building adjacent to the crumbling brick chedi, offered me my first chance to take off my shoes for a Buddhist interior. I dropped a few baht in the slot, admired the trappings, and stood inquiringly before the Buddha himself. Monks went about their business, walking around significantly, intoning before a kneeling young couple, and so on. Then, past the old city wall, to Wat Pa Sak, a ruin in that there is no maintained interior. The old chedi is impressive, with ornate stucco work depicting all sorts of mythology. Then a walk along the old city wall, with its moat at its foot, to Wat Phra That Chom Kitti, atop a hill and across the highway, with a chedi sheathed in gold (painted? leaf?) plates, a lovely temple, Buddha images and other statuary, and a view of the town and river valley. Back down along the wall, I duck into a big market for awhile, and wonder once again what happens to all this perishable abundance when it doesn't sell. I get to clowning with the schoolgirls venturing their English. Out on the highway, there are rumbles and splats, and I venture into a coffeehouse with the comforting name Hut of Love, for coffee and a confection on the terrace overlooking the Mekong. The persistent storm called for a second cup, which I finish as the rain tapers off. A rainbow stretches across Laos, assuring me once again that I am most blessed, knock wood. The last religious edifice of the day was Wat Pha Khao Pan, right by my hotel, with buddhas in the niches of its old chedi, and the temple entirely enclosed in bamboo scaffolding, for what purpose I could not figure. Boy monks kick around a deflated soccer ball.
Friday, April 6
I rent a bike and head for the country, downriver from Chiang Saen. I'd sketched a map off of google maps, which suggested some promising country byways. What google did not offer in detail, I would make up for with observation and intuition. What could go wrong? (Actually, my blessedness came through, and it all worked out). Quite a bit of highway to ride, but the traffic was moderately light. The rule was to keep the Mekong reasonably close on my left hand. I succeeded in not missing my turn off to a secondary road. I didn't know what to expect about this road, which turned out to be asphalt, pretty well settled with houses and small businesses, interspersed with fields and forest, pleasant enough, but not all that rustic. At length, I came to the village of Ban Pong Khong, which helpfully confirmed where I was on my sketch map, and which suggested which of my lines would really lead me into the sticks. I pause to admire the village wat, and have a totally unexpected espresso and coconut cake, for this village (and road) had a bit of tourist/gentry encroachment in evidence. But I turn off to a concrete one laner , and then off on the broken up remains of an ancient asphalt one laner. Thus I really got into the bananas. And great vistas of young, green rice. And big, squat palms, producing I'm not sure what (oil?). And some viney thing, just starting up on huge arrays of bamboo trellises. And regular rows of rubber trees, with little buckets under taps, containing actual, squishy rubber. I find all this very satisfying. The kids venture their "hello"s. Odd agricultural contraptions chug in the fields or along the road. At length, I find myself back out on the secondary road, and then the highway. I pause for devotions at a seventeenth century ruin, Wat That Khiao. Then, on the outskirts of town, the time is ripe for an ascent to Wat That Pha Ngao. With the day declining, I pass by all the religious/touristic activity at the base of the hill, but am nevertheless waylaid for a time by an affable old fellow who learned his English working on a cruise ship. But at length, I push that bike up the hill, very steep, pausing a moment at the carved teak edifice where the monks are ordained, and at last to the summit. The temple up there was a modern thing which I did not venture into, but admired the tremendous view of the town and the Mekong valley in the late afternoon rays. Then to ride the brakes back down, trying not to kill myself. Back in town, I drop off the bike. I'm somewhat exhausted (that bike was a better fit than the first two, but still not conducive to a comfortable ride). Shower and repose, and out to dine at the family operation. (Kitchen apparatus and tables under an awning attached to their house). The kid is in a contemplative mood tonight, well absorbed in Tom and Jerry.
Saturday, April 7
Raining hard all night, and well into the morn. It tapers off, but leaves a bit of wind, and even a little chill, lasting all day. Quite a contrast to the steam bath that has so far been Thailand. Today I just puttered around town, looking over the minor ruins, the river and it port operations, the covered market.... And puttered in my hotel room, fussing over and shaping up my evolving plans. Late afternoon, the river street has been closed off, and a huge street market is being erected, with steel frameworks, awnings, tables, cooking apparatus, and vast volumes of goods. For an excursion, I engaged a tuk tuk to get me back out to Wat That Pha Ngao, for a closer look at the religious edifices I passed by yesterday on my way up the hill. An elaborate narrative is carved in wood high up on the walls of the main temple. Yesterday's affable old fellow approaches me again for a chat. It appears that he hangs out there all day, looking for farangs to engage, and assisting the monks with their devotional sweeping. His English was not very comprehensible, but doing better than his remaining teeth. He admired the US for its wealth, and I gathered was amused, but not impressed, by its current leadership. It was a bit of a walk from this outlying wat back into town. A motorcyclist kindly offers me a lift, which I politely decline, and then another pulls over, a woman whose little rig I would have surely toppled over should I have ventured aboard (actually not - these people are incredibly skilled at loading up the two wheelers). Back in town, the street market is thronged. I insinuate myself through, aiming for a Thai message at the other end of town. Beaten and rejuvenated for an hour, I go for a seafood omelette from a street wok, and then pass through the street market again, now being disassembled, to pick up some take away treats for a second course in my hotel room. Tomorrow, southbound, by leaps and bounds.
Chiang Saen, 4/7
Leaps and Bounds
Sunday, April 8
Sunday morning, and the monks are intoning over the loudspeaker from the nearby wat. This has not been the case previous mornings, causing me some puzzlement. After my fourth and final farang friendly breakfast in Chiang Saen, I bow to the mighty Mekong and turn to the Main Street, set up for yet another ephemeral market, and look for a green bus, that is, a Chiang Rai bus. There it is up yonder, having pulled away, making its way slowly through the crowd. I walk through the crowd myself, thinking I might close the gap, but at length it got away from me. No matter. I chose in this case to not indulge dukkha and crave this bus, which would only add to my ambient samsara. Instead, I went for nirvana, easy to do when you know the buses are regular and frequent. The next bus bears me back to Chiang Rai. A short move, but as I am Phetchaburi bound, I need to lay up somewhere, and I'd rather it be here than Bangkok. I plant again quickly at Baan Bua Guesthouse, and spend the day slowly inhabiting the city. So I had a look at the nearby wat, walked streets and markets, drank coffee, visited the new great jade Buddha (a recently carved replica of the historically important original, currently residing in Bangkok), and found my way up the hill to Wat Phra That Doi Tong. I declined to enter, as the monks were chanting away in there, but eavesdropped with touristic reverence. There's a view of deep, forested mountains, and I'm feeling a little bereft about leaving northern Thailand so soon, having never gotten deeply into its nature. But that's a logistical problem. Next visit, learn to drive left side and rent a car, or learn to drive a scooter and rent one of those.
Monday, April 9
A day of motion. I'm packed in moments, and step through the pleasant little yard of the Baan Bua Guesthouse. Two blocks to the bus station, where I knew taxis lurked, but a songthaew guy seized me and offered me a private ride, 150 baht, for the airport five miles out of town. He lets me out just as the national anthem starts up for the eight o'clock observance (also at six in the evening). All the airport and airline staff, and most of the public, including my tourist self, stand at attention and face the portrait of the king. (I've seen this before, but never so perfectly done). Seat available for the first flight, I am so blessed. I was assuming that this flight, one of ten or so daily to Bangkok, from a small, provincial capitol, would be on a little plane from a little airport. It was a packed 737. Busy, busy busy. In flight two hours after my alarm beeping. Two days bus journey in two more hours. Aisle seat, unfortch. Touchdown Bangkok, at its domestic airport. Bus link to the end node of the elevated train system. Transfer to the subway system (this did not go smoothly - I'll take the blame, but could suggest systemic improvements). To the end of the line, again at Hualamphong, in Chinatown, where lies the terminal for the national train network. Short walk to the station, certainly a cavernous and somewhat rank classic, too bad I didn't have my camera handy. I buy a ticket for Phetchaburi, take a whiz, buy a fruit juice, figure out the platform, and make a classic dash, car number three way the heck down there, and board at the last whistle ( missing it would have not been a disaster- there were hourlies). Taking this clattery old train , though slower than a bus, would spare me having to figure out how to get off a through bus and into town. Still, there were travails. A stated arrival of a train at 4:10 I figured meant 4:10. It did not, remotely. At 4:10, I was puzzling over a sign indicating Ratchaburi, and thinking of all the wild spelling variations I've seen with place names. Phetchaburi was still an hour away. Anyway, the kind Thais helped me through all this. (Knowing where you are and where to get off is often problematic in foreign places. Good reason to have a detailed map, and to have it, ahem, not buried in your pack when you need it). Pretty countryside, by the way, and interesting trackside domestic arrangements. Arrive Phetchaburi. The tuk tuk guy thinks that what I really need is for him to take me off to see the town monkeys. He was wrong. What I really needed was to sit down with a cold drink, look over the city thumbnail map, and think through my next move. I get a little bit lost and a little bit found, and settle in an agreeable place in the heart, with a little deck hanging over the Phet River, close by the (not very quiet) bridge. (The first place I looked at was utterly cool, basic and cheap, a hundred years old, whacked together out of teak planks - and six feet on the other side of those planks was the thundering traffic coming off the bridge. I declined the room, but dined there all the same, the shutters open to the river. The waiter advised against the first dish I requested - "not good for foreigners" - I didn't question further - and suggested something else, which was delicious, after I swept aside the killer chilis.
Tuesday, April 10
I step out of my room and into something squishy. I have demolished a starfruit. I hit another, and would have got one with every step had I not learned to pick up my feet and pay attention. As I sit at the table on the little deck over the river, to think the first thoughts of the day, a ripe starfruit plops invitingly at my elbow. Most blessed breakfast ever. I commence spending too much time fussing over the logistics of visiting overnight Khang Kraechen National Park. I already knew my landlady had knowledge and fair English, and I should have put myself in her hands straight off. It transpires that she'll be able to get me to the right spot, and soothed me over some vexing uncertainties. Expensive, but sometimes you have to throw money at a travel problem. So now, to look over this intriguing little city. In terms of age, decrepitude, and crampedness, it's the coolest town yet. I make a grand tour of the great old wats, with a quick look at many minor ones. Also, a thorough, stooped tour of the dark, narrow market alleys. The brown, soporific Phet River merited many a wistful gaze as I paused on its bridges, including a bamboo one, tied together for the benefit of pedestrians bound for a covered market. An English speaking wok lady touted me into her streetside establishment for lunch. Her girls were most delighted with our interchange. But soon they sunk into their cell phones. Weepy soap opera on the tube. Mama and baby rat have the run of the place ("oy!", Thai for "shoo!" - meanwhile, grandma (human grandma, that is) discomfited the irksome rodents by swishing buckets of water down their cranny). I'd saved the wat on the hill for the end of the day, wishing to get a view of the town in the late afternoon rays, but this did not work out. I pass through and engage the gauntlet of monkeys, notorious residents of this hill. There was a guard gate and booth (unexpected), with the guard sleeping in his chair. I left the entrance fee on the counter, and proceeded, but he woke up and waved me back. It transpires that the place closed at four (strange - you'd think it would be the public sunset spot). Anyway, I had a nice Simple English conversation with him about the monkeys. I stepped back down and had an interesting interlude observing and engaging with them. One is advised to not have things dangling off ones person, or to carry anything like a plastic bag, which will likely lead to a mugging. I couldn't quite tell if they were desirous of my camera or offended by it. I did determine quickly that they maintained a certain level of misanthropy, for which I can only admire them. They seem to spend their time picking at stuff to eat, grooming each other , amiably sparring, lounging, and a little tentative humping. Blessings on them. Dining again over the gurgling river. Tomorrow, into the jungle. [actually, maybe not - complications have arisen.....]
The Face of the Gibbon
Wednesday, April 11
The complications have indeed set me back a day. I decline to write an essay about them, but after spending the morning refiguring my alternatives, it ended up being all for the best. So, for today, to do what I do best, which is walk. I met up with what I assumed was a preliminary New Years procession, with lots of colorful garb, and a drum and cymbal pattern that really kicked me out of my rut. Then up monkey hill, through lovely parkland. The ebullient watermongress at her little stand assures me that she is fifty years old (she looked forty), and inquires after my age (a Thai thing, as I have read, and observed). "Sixty", I say, adding a year. She is impressed. "Is this your baby?" I inquire, nodding to the adjacent three year old. "Yes, I forty-seven!", as she pantomimes a huge belly. I raise my eyebrows in admiration and bow to her fertility. I finish the climb, look over the town below, and admire the tremendous architecture on the three hilltops, built mid-nineteenth century as a retreat for King Rama IV. On my way back down through the monkeys, the water lady eases her motorcycle down past me on the steep hill, one hand on the brake, kid in front between her legs, the other hand waving me goodbye, and offering me more water anytime. Now there's a friendly person. I have a late afternoon lunch at the same place as yesterday. May as well be a regular where you're known. The girls were impressed with my "oy" to the rat. I further inhabit the town.....
Thursday, April 12
At 6:30, my landlady, Noai, and niece Pha, install me in the minivan and spirit me away. Noai points out the promising piles of elephant dung on the roadside. An hour and a half, arrive Kaeng Krachan National Park, Ban Krang campground. Noai kindly introduces me to the park staff, who have set me up with a tent and mattress. Essentials communicated with their fair English, they leave me for a two night stay. I settle in and commence a four hour tour with trail guide Chibon. Most of this was actually along a packed dirt road, though not accessible to the public. Lots of birds, butterflies, lizards, spiders (including one big beast that digs itself a deep burrow in exposed banks), droppings, tracks, and so on, but, unsurprisingly, no charismatics. The high point, literally, was a big climb through the woods, to the summit of Pukaran. This was on knife-like volcanic rock even more severe than what I encountered last year in Greece. A stumble would reduce a man instantly to a scattered mess of broken bones and shredded meat. Tremendous views of the steep, thickly forested slopes. Chibon lights up a smoke. We pause a while, and a have a conversation of sorts, in which not a lot was communicated, though the phrasebook helped. Down below again, indeed way below, into a cool and refreshing bat cave. We disturb the bats from their repose, but hopefully they'll get over it. Chibon spends some time straightening things out, resetting the tips of broken stalagmites, replacing obviously disturbed rocks, and so on. Back at the campground, he pauses at the shrine, and we part. I then continue on my own, on a nature trail up the stream from the campground, in and out of said stream, through secondary forest, the creatures sounding, getting a little lost and a little found, and come out again on the road. Dinner at the camp kitchen, omelette and rice. Then out again, to reprise Chibon's road and let the day slip to tropical night. The squawking bird that was merely irritated by us humans during the day, was in full fury in the twilight. Rustles in distant treetops, or hoots and inscrutable vowels emanating from the bamboo groves, bespeak the presence of our primate brethren. Dusk darkens into night, and the voices of the many creatures ascends into a screaming cacophony, or symphony if you will. I turn back, through a Vegas of fireflies. The big rustle of a big animal off the side of the road gives me pause. I pause a good ten minutes, waiting for him to make another move, during which time I queried the southern stars, and considered that in these parts, I stood the small but not insignificant risk that I might be devoured by a tiger, which, though terrifying, would certainly be an elegant way to go. But the creature, whoever he was, was more patient than me, and I moved on. A cold shower, and I put my sweated out clothes back on, for a hot night's sleep on a musty old camping mattress.
Friday, April 13
The day's planned excursion was an ascent of Phanoen Thung, the highest point in the park. But it was not be, as it transpires that the trail was closed. A disappointment, but it spared me the problem of getting myself to the trailhead (seven miles, uphill). (Expensive, and still not really clear with the park people how it's actually done - or you can hitch a ride with Thai vacationers going up to witness the great morning "sea of mist" show.... and back, after they've all come down? ....meh). So then, I would just study more thoroughly my immediate environs. I walk up the road, to see and hear what was to be seen and heard. The hoots and howls, and vowels short and long, or very long....is this the oratory of the gibbon, or some humble monkey? (As an ignoramus, I'm open. But I'm well aware of the incredible rhetoric of the howler monkey of the Americas). I plunge into the jungle and close the gap with the vocalist. But s/he either fell silent or moved on, as I was now hearing voices (plural) on the other side of the road. I move over, but the voices had stopped. I wait a long time, knowing they're up there, trying to let no branches move unnoticed. At length, they announce themselves again, and I maneuver stealthily to their tree, spot them way up in the canopy, and position myself to where I had a good view through the understory. There are two, one dark, whose face I never saw, and one light brown, with the unmistakeable face of the gibbon. I gazed at them for a minute with the monocular, till they moved over to the next tree, and I was unable to keep track of the them. (As I later learn, the lar, or white-handed gibbon - the color variation is normal). That was a treat. I continue up the road, indeed to where it turns sharply upward, and follow it a while. But with the road scratched into a precipitous slope, there would be no plunging into the woods, so I took in the view of yonder thick-wooded slopes and turned around. Back in reverse along yesterday's nature trail, hearing locutions, but spotting no monkeys. I stretch out in the tent a while. The campground has really filled up with Thai families and nature lovers, as it's Songkran, the three day Thai new year. (Happy 2561 - years since the Buddha attained nirvana). I explore the other nature trail, with screaming cicadas. There is rustling in a great splayed out clump of bamboo. I bide my time. A family of dusky leaf monkeys (or langurs) comes into view. They move around some, and settle for a time. I'm sure they're aware of me, but the adults take no particular notice, and simply sit or go about their business. The baby, however, never took his eyes off me for a moment, and at one point crept out along a long, arcing stalk of bamboo to get a better look at me. At length, they move on, and so do I. After a chance meeting with the extra large Thailand squirrel, I'm back on the road and back at the campground for another omelette with rice. Then another twilight to dusk to dark walk on Chibon's road. I catch sight of the iconic hornbill, whose wing flaps really make a racket. Primates rustle yonder branches, and I hear the distant call of the gibbon. I walk as far as the ford, where I am delighted to find the monumental leavings of the elephants. This pile was definitely not here yesterday. Interesting. (Rather cylindrical, by the way, not the familiar pats of the bovine gaur). I waited a while in hopes that they would appear to drop another load, but ultimately returned, through the roaring of the populace. Another cold shower, and a night on the sweaty old camping mattress, in two day sweated out clothes. A lively drone in the woods. This is the life.
Saturday, April 14
I roll out of bed, and straight off walk the fifty minutes to the ford to await the elephants. But they remained elusive. Good for them. I looked around on the other side of the ford for a while, then made a slow return. The campground is full of Thai families in picnic-hiking-vacation mode. I have my morning omelette and rice, and up the road for another gibbon hunt. This one unsuccessful. The extra traffic coming down from the sea of mist might have had something to do with that. I came back to the camp kitchen for a cold drink, and was going to go for a short jaunt up the nature trail, when I bumped into Pha, who had just arrived, with her uncle this time, an hour and a half before my two o'clock pick up time. She wasn't rushing me, but I was all right with leaving at the moment, so off we went, through the celebratory splashes of water from roadside revelers (water dousing is a New Years thing - carried to extremes in Chiang Mai) back to her Guesthouse in Phetchaburi. Shower and clean clothes are called for. I've been puttering around town and my hotel room. I dine for the fourth time in the cool old teak plank place across the street, and talk gibbons with the owner. Tomorrow, further south into the Malay Peninsula.
Sunday, April 15
Bag on back, I walk the two miles to the bus stop on the highway, willing to engage a tuk tuk should one appear, but none did. This was just a bus stop, where through buses supposedly pull over, not a station, which Phetchaburi strangely does not have. There was some sort of small facility with a not helpful staff. I had some uncertainties with the scrawl on my ticket (which Noai had picked up for me), but it all worked out. Seat number four, bless her, the ship captain's view directly above the driver in a double decker. The view was great when I could keep my eyes open. Twelve and a half hours though, pretty grueling. Two half hour breaks (the second with an hour and a half to go, quite unnecessary) and forty-five minutes fussing at a police checkpoint (I think there may have been an arrest). Arrive Phuket bus terminal at ten, much later than expected. Taxi to city center. I had four guidebook hotel prospects, all clustered together, which was nice, as none worked out. The cheapster had been rehabbed to luxury, the next, as I was told, was to be approached by some unfindable door that was not its main door, and two were dark, with signs asking guests to phone, a dispiriting request for a phoneless man. I wasn't looking to blow money on a layover in a tourist town, and managed to find a cheap looking place, full, but their second location was two blocks down. And so I was lodged, and out and about unburdened at 11:30, looking to sit down to something to eat. This had seemed possible during my hotel scramble, but the eateries had cleared out their last customers, leaving the action in this touristed, gentrified town to the bars, which were parked up with motorcycles and emitting a lot of really terrible live music, or soundtracks with the likes of "Hotel California". I had maintained a bus travel fast all day, sustaining myself like a butterfly on two little bottles of fruit juice. I broke this fast with a midnight breakfast of beer and inscrutable Asian cracker-sandwich things from a Thai convenience store chain named "Family Mart".
Monday, April 16
I plan the day's transportation and settlement strategy over another "American" breakfast, not hard to find in this tourist town. This always includes not only bacon, but two hotdogs standing in for sausage, which I find rather clever. I finalize my plan over an "Americano" at a coffee house a few doors down. This place has got portraits lined up of Mandela, Marley, Lennon, Gandhi, Che, the Dalai Lama, King, Chaplin, and Einstein, for our universal approbation. I'm outy. Long taxi ride to the pier. I buy a ticket for the next "longtail" (the workhorse of Thai aquatic transportation, a long vessel, with or without a cabin, propelled and steered by an engine on a pivot, with a long driveshaft hanging way off the stern), and am soon plying the salt waves. Arrive Ko Yao Noi. [Where I'm at: Ko Yao Noi "Island Long Little", smaller twin of the less developed Ko Yao Yai, "Island Long Big", set in the middle of Phang Nga Bay, an arm of the Andaman Sea closed off by Phuket Island. It's seven miles long, with about five thousand people. Economy devoted to rubber, coconuts, fishes, shrimps, and tourists. The road along the east side is strung with small accommodations. Developed, but not at all overwhelming. I'm at the mellower northern end. The landscape jutting out of the seascape is spectacular: craggy, green-upholstered snags, near vertical to sheer cliffs poking out of the water. - This topographical theme also runs through the unsubmerged parts of the Malay Peninsula]. [Ethnic note: the islanders are Muslims, and their faces evince a shift in the gene pool toward the Malay. The women's headscarves flap in the breeze on their motorcycles, as do the sarongs of the men. I read that further south, the allegiance of the Muslim ethnic Malays to the Thai state is not entire, and therefore, there is trouble]. From the pier, songthaews await to distribute farangs and locals among their various drop off points. My request for "Tha Kao", the name of the little village at the northeast end got me dropped off at a little resort of the same name. No matter, it was a ten minute walk to the village, just a few houses, shops, little restaurants, and such, strung out at the end of the pier for destinations on the east side of Phang Nga Bay. My planned first hotel choice was an obvious keeper. A nice bungalow, with a porch, fan, fridge, free water, under the palms, and only a couple of minutes walk to the village. My host, Bao, is a friendly fellow who settled me in nicely. I have a good look around, village and hinterlands, nod to the cows and the cowherds, play "hello where you go" with the kids, and so on. Back at my bungalow in time for the downpour. Then out to dine at a five table operation at the end of the pier. The soaked English couple had not been so fortunate with the storm. To bed without a beer, for the Muslim village of Tha Kao seems to be quite dry.
Tuesday, April 17
Now, to get more thoroughly acquainted with this island paradise. To the pier to await the next songthaew (coordinated with the arrival of the boats) which circulate back to the main town, Tha Kai, and to the pier for boats for Phuket. Arrive Tha Kai. I wanted to look over the town (strung along a couple of intersecting roads), maybe score a map (obtained later in my village), have a cup of good coffee (accomplished), find a six pack of Chang (looked dire at first - shops dry, even the reliable 7/11 devoid - but the gentlemen at the coffeehouse directed me, and I was supplied at a little shop by a woman not wearing a headscarf), have something to eat (a roti, and then another), have a look at the mosque (built on the cheap, but with grace). My wait for the return songthaew got a little protracted, with the system not falling into place quite as comprehensibly as I'd been led to believe. No problem, mai pen rai. At length, back to my village at the other end of the island. I rented a bike for two days ("rent bicycle" on the sign in my village meant they call for it from the bike shop I saw back in the main town). It magically appeared in forty-five minutes, an able machine that fit my body well. I rode off through the hinterlands to the north, ending up at the end of the road, or path, really, at a deserted beach, and chat with a couple of Germans. Back into town, and then through it, passing by the little hospitality establishments strung out along the perimeter road. A pause for an actual draft beer. Right time, right place. I drop off the bike at my bungalow, and have a walk out into the sand and mudflat strewn with rocks that the low tide reveals. Little crabs exhibit herding behavior. Shower, and a noodle dish at the one restaurant operating in the village proper. The pier, I observe, is the nighttime hangout for the kids and teens. Stands to reason. Another downpour, enjoyed from the comfort of my porch.
Wednesday, April 18
Have bicycle, will travel. Southbound, on the eastern side, the tourist infrastructure thickens, and my breakfast needs are met. I turn at the mosque, and ride the spur to the Laem Sai pier, through a humble, comfy-looking neighborhood. Then through the main town, and, completing a rural circuit, through it again, and up the long dead end on the western side. Coconuts and buffaloes. Mangrove groves at high tide. The village of Tha Tondo is a cozy place, at the end of a long pier. Inland, through rubber plantations. This sounds scenically unpromising, but a rubber plantation is a lovely and peaceful place, with a tall canopy letting through dappled sunlight, a green and open understory, and the rows pleasing in their orderliness. The rubber trees I saw were mostly resting from their labors, with their little buckets turned aside. One would pass sheds here and there, with some sort of wheeled apparatus on benches, having something to do with the processing, I suppose. At some point the one lane, concrete road gives way packed dirt, and ultimately, with some steep up and down, packed dirt with deep gullies. This led to some dismounting and long haul up-pushings and down-lettings , as I wasn't looking to kill myself. Lots of sweat. I'd gotten myself skewed toward some new uppity development with a guard gate. An Italian couple with GPS on the phone confirmed that I was off track. So, after some more exercise and sweat, I come back to a familiar junction in the rubber and make my way back to my home village of Tha Kao, dispensary of all that is needful, such as cold pineapple juice and water. I turn aside to ride to yesterday's deserted beach, thinking of a swim, and not quite remembering if the evening low tide would somewhere at this location allow for this. Nice ride, but a plunge was not going to work out. So back to town, and through it, another kilometer, to the place and the time for a bench and a bar and a draft Singha. Back to my bungalow, to shower and plotz on a bed under a fan. A day well ridden. I dine at the resort next door, where E, my waiter, assures me that he can set me up with a kayak in the morn.
Thursday, April 19
After breakfast, E and I schlep the kayak across the road and into the water, the tide on the rise. I set off, duck under the pier, and head north along the coast. Calm and sunny. I pass the deserted beach, and at length pause at another little beach for first swim. I continue, rounding the rocky and sometimes vertical headlands. Eons of waves have carved overhangs into the sharp and jaggy rock. The gigantic floating mountaintops of Phang Nga Bay hither and yon. I set course for an island off the north tip of my island, Ko Kudu Yai. There I discover, at the foot of verdant and rocky cliffs, and set back among great pillars, a peaceful little cove, with a little sand beach, and many-rooted mangrove trees, and a log to sit on. There I expose my glorious flesh and become one with the sea. I cavort myself a good hour in the brine, hang out under the overhangs, luxuriate in buoyancy, attend to the roosting of the hornbill, and while the time. I emerge reborn. Tide on the ebb, I make my return, pausing a good while to observe the monkeys, in particular a big, robust alpha male kind of guy who hung out in full view in a tall, open treetop. (A macaque, I believe, like in Phetchaburi). Back to town, and around the pier. The dropping tide had exposed the mudflat, so there was no paddling up to the road. I'd anticipated this, and made an effort to commence a portage, but there was really no way to get a good grip on that heavy, plastic bobber of a kayak. So then, plan B, an idea suggested by E, which was back around the pier to the mouth of the canal, where I was able to get the boat up on the steps and wrestled up to the parking area of the songthaews. From there E could pick up the boat with a vehicle. As I was walking back to the resort with paddle and vest, E passed by on his motorcycle on his way to play soccer. He insisted on taking paddle and vest with him and said he'd get the boat himself later. That was easy. Off with the briny clothes and into the shower. My host Bao comes by to say goodbye and collect the rent. He hopped off his motorcycle on one foot, having turned his ankle in the soccer game. He was off to the pharmacy in the main town. Good healing to him. I heard the call to prayer at sunset. If there's a mosque in this little village, I never saw it. Maybe somebody set up a loudspeaker. My sojourn on Ko Yao Noi has been idyllic. Tomorrow, eight transportation links between me and a room back in Bangkok.
Ko Yao Noi, 4/19
More Streets of Bangkok
Friday, April 20
Still dark, and I am gently awakened by the call to prayer. I decline in favor of a few more winks. (I hadn't heard this on previous days. In this little town, it seems they save it for just the sabbath). But in due course I'm packed and at the pier, thinking I'd wait for the regular songthaew to the other pier, the one for Phuket. But with a driver offering me a private ride for 150 baht, I thought I'd move things along. But it was hurry up and wait, as I missed the boat by five minutes (frequent enough departures, so I wasn't really trying to figure out the times). Three brown, hard boiled eggs with soy sauce eased the passage of the hour till the next departure. 200 baht gets me motored back to Phuket Island, this time in a speedboat. 600 baht taxi to the airport. 2200 baht ($70) flies me to the domestic airport in Bangkok (they got my scissors - stricter standard than our maximum of four inches, it appears). 30 baht bus to the elevated train line, 44 baht elevated train, 26 baht subway to the Hualamphong station in Chinatown, the end of the line. I wanted to take the canal boat from there, but was having a hard time figuring it out. I was ready to give up and take a tuk tuk, when a friendly fellow going my way, and wishing to exercise his English, explained the system (enough, anyway - mysteries remained about frequencies). So I got a canal side view of Bangkok, interpreted by my guide, and was in my chosen neighborhood of Banglamphu in twenty minutes, much quicker than sitting in traffic, and free, thanks to the government subsidy. Banglamphu: the backpacker tourist ghetto, centered on the absurdly schlocky, over the top Khao San road. The humble hotel I'd scoped out for relocation when I first arrived in Bangkok was in a little back alley, away from the noise and madness. The nicer rooms with a balcony they'd shown me back then were unfortunately not available, and I had to content myself with a cell with just enough room between bed and walls to break your leg should you lose your balance or try to turn your foot. Shower, out for a Thai massage and something to eat. Coming back, I take a turn down Khao San road for the full experience. It's Friday night, and the club music is clashing at a brutal volume. There are many, many bodies, some gyrating, some merely standing or waddling in the crush. Oh, to not be young again, thinking that somehow I ought to be participating in this kind of crap. I make it through the gauntlet to the end of the street. No need to do that again.
Saturday, April 21
Out for breakfast, I make a perfunctory effort to improve my hotel situation in an agreeable neighborhood across the canal, but decided it wasn't worth the bother. Today, a lengthy visit to Wat Pho, late seventeenth century, with its great edifices, and a lengthy reclining Buddha. (This posture symbolizes the Buddha leaving this life and entering nirvana). I am accosted by a pair of schoolgirls for a English class interview assignment. Another pair later had the same set of questions. (I'll bet I've done twenty of these in my travels). I pause for a Thai massage. It's hard not to go along with this custom when the shops are all over, with Thais lined up on loungers or on mats getting the treatment (300 baht for an hour, with two hour sessions offered - now that seems excessive). Then a walk through Chinatown to the Hualamphong train station, and subway to my first neighborhood in Bangkok. I was aiming for an intriguing eatery there, a cavernous auditorium, with a corrugated steel roof, steel tables and plastic chairs, grills smoking and woks sizzling, and girls aggressively seizing you off the street and sitting you down with a menu. Very atmospheric. In due course, subway and tuk tuk back home.
Sunday, April 22
Today would have been the day to make a day trip to Ayutthaya, the stately remains of a great Thai kingdom that flourished from the 14th through the 18th centuries, fifty some miles north of Bangkok. But I decided that the time and energy demand was too great, and opted instead to just circulate in Bangkok. (Here I could have used that extra day I lost in Phetchaburi). So, the ferry across the river to visit Wat Arun, with its towering Khmer style prang. More river cruises, with a bit of confusion and waiting due to pier renovations. I attend to the great, ten-foot solid gold Buddha at Wat Traimit in Chinatown. A Thai massage, this time only for my feet, who I appreciate so much. In the early eve, I got on the metro and paid a visit to the Erawan shrine, devoted to the creation god Brahma, and his elephant, Erawan (more old Hinduism adhering to Thai Buddhism). This shrine is strangely set on the corner of a big, glitzy urban intersection. Here in the midst of busy city life, Thais are circulating in and out, bowing and praying, and offering up incense and garlands, while traditionally attired singers and dancers carry on off to the side. Seeing all this devotion really made me feel affection for these people, a sentiment that's been building for a while. Off to dine again at last night's cavernous place, this time on a roasted fish with herbs stuffed in its gaping mouth. And a pile of rice. Oh man, this is living.
Monday, April 23
On this day of leave taking, it is meet, right, and salutary that I visit Wat Phra Kaeo. I knew it would be absolutely swamped with my fellow tourists, and rip off of 500 baht (for farangs - taxpaying Thais get in free), but as the religious and civic heart of the nation, one must pay one's respects. The place was built late 18th century as the king's royal temple, and was adjacent to his domestic and administrative grounds. All still in use for state occasions, thought the present king has digs elsewhere in Bangkok. The architecture is incredibly lavish. The bot contains the original little emerald Buddha, relocated from Chiang Rai (who supplied this loss with a recently carved replica - a centimeter short - see below). No photography in this holiest of holies. The contrast was notable between this horde of tourists pushing through, hushed and de-hatted by the guards, fresh off their selfies, with more to come, and the devotees last night at the Erawan shrine, who meant business. (Though to be accurate, there were some people prostrating themselves before the emerald Buddha). I made my exit, back out to the streets, where I wander the riverbank, university, Chinatown, sweeping up a few wats, sweeping up a few street- vended treats, and at length back to the train station at Hualamphong, to pick up my bag, where I'd left it at the left luggage facility. I'm in time for the six o'clock national anthem. Everyone gets up off the floor (because that's where they wait - the chairs are for the old and disabled) and face the portrait of the king, with the staff of the station in full salute. An apt signal for my trip to turn. Subway to the airport line. A big crush on the platform, sweat pouring off my body. Three trains and forty-five minutes before I was moved forward enough to get on board. The crush at the door of the train was like getting into a Stones concert. Arrive airport. Now to enact a solution to a problem I had anticipated. For the last four weeks, I've either been wet with sweat, sticky with dried sweat, or at some delightful middle ground. As this would not do for air travel, it was into the handicapped stall with washcloth and a bottle of water for the mother of all sponge baths, and a change into clean clothes. I emerge like Superman from the phone booth. Liftoff at 10:40 PM. Bye, Thailand. Thanks for letting me scratch your surface.
A Few Random Notes on a Plane
Special treats on the flight home:
The northeastern tip of Hokkaido, with flat beaches and little, snow covered volcanic cones. Seoul, still in existence, and not sacrificed to Trump's need for ratings. Lake Athabasca in the dawn, iced in. A direct flyover of my beloved Pigeon Point, on the Canadian border, unseen under the belly of the plane, but Hat Point in plain view.
The prayer-like hand gesture under the chin, in general use as a sign of respect. As an older person, I was advised to not initiate a wai, but I responded to many.
It's said that the Thai people revere the king and royal family, and I don't doubt it. The official portraits of the recently dead, long-reigning king, and his son and successor are everywhere, and it's not uncommon for people to offer a wai as they pass. Lots of signage calls attention to royal good deeds. This reverence is official, and enforced by law, but I think it reflects genuine sentiment, as the king's image, often informal, is also common in popular art.
Horrific. The legends are true. Getting across streets as a pedestrian requires strategy and verve, and a neck in swivel mode. I could go into detail, but let's just leave it at bad, bad, bad.
Given the extent of the street cookery, I don't think most Thais eat in much. I'd eat at sit down street operations if an English menu or pictures were on display, so as to not put the cook, or cook's kid, or myself, into the position of wondering what the hell I was talking about. For little take away items, one can just point (This didn't always work out. Cold, jellied offal wrapped in a banana leaf? I confess I only got halfway through that). Everything delicious, of course, when I could avoid the dangerous spices and chilis.
For such a sunny country, sunglasses are not common among Thais. However, construction workers and women will slather themselves in a white, paint like sunscreen.
Full participation in modernity in this of course, with Thailand particularly given to huge banners hanging off buildings.
To be removed not just at sites with Buddha images, but other places to, like some open air eateries. One learns to look for a pile of shoes to alert one as to what's expected.
Motorcycles, and the fantastic, practical contraptions derived from them:
As essential to the culture and economy as anywhere where poverty and prosperity meet at a modern middle ground, that is, most of the world, from what I've seen and can surmise. The vast majority of them scooters, or 125 or 150 models, not often bigger. Eight-year-olds and grannies drive them.
I had the feeling at first that my little linguistic efforts were not landing right, and it took time, and advice from English speaking Thais, to improve. (As always, when asking a native a question about language, one must seek out a good English speaker, as people with only a little English will misunderstand the subtlety you're trying to get right, and agree that your bad use of their language is just fine).
Thais are quiet and nice people, pleasant and responsive. When I've had awkward moments with them, I can usually trace the cause to me wrong-footing something. I will say, however, that the people of Ko Yao Noi were particularly welcoming, and not just the hospitality providers. The greetings of the people out in the countryside seemed genuine and cheerful. This does surprise me a little, given the deportment of the farang tourists among them, who are after all tattooed savages, who, even after spending a lot of money mutilating their bodies, still have more money than the islanders, which privileges them to walk around half naked in a conservative country, which plenty of signage and literature asks them not to do, the better to display their gross savagery.
Detroit Metro Airport, 4/24