Andy Carvin's Waste of Bandwidth

November 23, 1997

Doi Suthep and the Hmong Village “Poppy Field”

Filed under: Thailand — Andy Carvin @ 9:29 pm

Opium poppy in Hmong village garden

We had another day and a half to kill in Chiang Mai and we planned to spend most of that time relaxing at cafes, doing absolutely nothing at all. We were quite successful much of the time but we did manage to spend a few hours visiting Doi Suthep, a mountain to the west of town. Doi Suthep is best known for a large wat that sits on its eastern slopes. It’s one of the holiest shrines in northern Thailand, attracting large crowds for both the temple and the view of Chiang Mai from the top of the mountain.
A few steps outside of our guesthouse we hired a cheery songthaew driver to take us for the 45-minute trip up the mountain and back. As we reached the outskirts of Chiang Mai the road climbed slowly into a series of hairpin turns. Our driver was in no rush; we ambled all the way. Though Doi Suthep is only 1676 meters high the number of winding turns stretches the actual drive uphill to over six miles from the base of the mountain. A continuous stream of touring buses and minivans passed us in both directions. I guess it’d be a bit crowded up top. Our driver dropped us near the steps leading to the temple and told us to meet him down the street when we were ready to go back to Chiang Mai. I asked him if we could also go to a Hmong village on the far side of the mountain but he said no, for he wasn’t allowed to drive past the Doi Suthep temple checkpoint. We’d have to hire a second taxi – only a handful of them were allowed to proceed. “Nothing I can do,” he said. ” It’s mafia. Taxi mafia. They control who goes where.” Wonderful. I guess we’d worry about visiting the Hmong village later.

Doi Suthep temple

The marble steps of Doi Suthep teemed with tour groups, school children and devout pilgrims – certainly more people than we had seen at any other site in Thailand, save the Royal Palace in Bangkok. We walked up the steps, marveling at the glimmering stone and mirrored tile serpents that slithered down each side of the steps. Susanne tried to get a picture of me near the top of the steps, but a continuous stream of tourists kept getting in the way of the shot. At the summit we reached a large marble platform with a golden temple at its center. I had a brief flashback to the Swayumbunath stupa in Kathmandu – the long climb, the incense, the crowds – yet here I didn’t feel that same sense of mystic awe I had felt in Nepal. Doi Suthep, as beautiful a temple it is, is also one large souvenir shop; the Coke signs and enormous amounts of tourist paraphernalia detracted from the supposed sacrality of the temple. Fortunately, inside the temple itself you could get away from the crass capitalism, so as long as you retreat within this marble and gold sanctuary there is fleeting peace. Many visitors lit candles and incense at shrines in the four corners of the temple. A frisky little kitten mounted surprise attacks on peoples’ socks as they walked by – I occupied its attention for several minutes by dangling my camera strap above it, which it playful stalked with feverish abandon.

Outside the main temple crowds admired the view of Chiang Mai. Susanne and I paused for a moment and looked. No temples, no rolling hill country – only urban sprawl and distant billboards for Johnny Walker and Pizza Hut. Chiang Mai from above, Chiang Mai from below, it all felt so disappointingly familiar.
We took a brief tram ride down to the bottom of the temple steps, where we hired another songthaew to take us around to the Hmong village and back for 200 baht. We were getting ripped off for sure, but apart from a five mile walk in each direction, this was the only way we’d get to the other side of the mountain. The air was chilly as we drove further up Doi Suthep. We descended after a reaching the summit, winding slowly to the western slope and eventually to the Hmong village, which occupied a prime spot in a valley 4000 feet above Chiang Mai.

Hmong woman, Doi Suthep

I had no illusions about this particular village; there may have been a time when one would have found a pristine Hmong community, untouched by modernity, but now this small town was a thriving spot on the Chiang Mai tourist trail. The songthaew deposited us in front of the village in a large, unpaved parking lot full of motorbikes, minibuses and pickup trucks. I expected to see hordes of Western tourists inside, but there weren’t too many people around; perhaps some of those trucks in the parking lot were owned by the Hmong themselves. The village itself occupied a series of rolling hills, with several small streets extending to a steep valley that served as the community’s growing fields. It was a lazy afternoon market, with shops selling Hmong clothes, musical instruments, blankets and medicinal herbs as their keeps napped in the corner while listening to Thai pop music.
As we wound through the village I noticed a cardboard sign with the message “Hmong opium” and an arrow pointing to the left, back towards the hill-sloped gardens. Hmm. The Hmong, like other Thai hilltribes, are allowed by law to cultivate a small amount of opium poppies for their own use, but it was technically illegal to sell it to the outside world. What on earth could they be advertising here? We decided to investigate. A man sat under a shaded gate with a roll of ticket stubs and a small metal box. He pointed to a sign that said “ten baht entry,” so we paid him the small sum to enter the gardens. We really had no idea if they were growing opium openly, but assuming they were, it made great sense to charge admission. I guess if you can’t legally sell the stuff, you can make some money allowing westerners to gawk at it, growing out of the ground like any other weed. Whether or not these Hmong knew of the current heroin chic in America made no difference, I guess; as long as hippy trekkers came to town asking about poppy fields, why not make them pay 10 baht to see it? Besides, it’s safer than allowing a bunch of stoners trek through the backcountry of the Golden Triangle, looking for it themselves. Burmese bandits or Karen rebels would probably blow them to kingdom come before they ever even saw their first poppy.
The fact that there were opium poppies to be found in this enormous garden made little difference to us, though, for the setting was lush and picturesque. A burst of colors, the valley was both a flower garden as well as a functional farm featuring fruit trees, corn, marijuana and soybeans. The fields sloped down the valley as a series of steps, with each earthen platform featuring a different combination of crops. We followed crescent-shaped footpaths through the gardens, winding back and forth along each tier. A large wooden waterwheel turned near the bottom of the gardens, spinning ever so slowly from the trickle of a mountain stream that cut through the heart of the valley. The tribe had their own little piece of paradise on the side of this mountain.

Andy and Susanne mug for pictures in the Hmong garden

The air was thick with a syrupy sweet scent from the thousands of flowers blooming along the terraces. Yet we hadn’t seen any poppy plants. We descended further into the garden until we reached the bottom, just above a tool shed. Here, I noticed three or four lonely long-stemmed flowers with bulbous heads and beautiful purple petals. Opium poppies. These delicate, humble blooms were the scourge of millions of addicts around the world. They just didn’t seem to fit the job description very well. I took a couple of pictures of the flowers and managed to save a pair of petals pressed in my Lonely Planet book.

Hmong carpet maker, Doi Suthep

We eventually made our way out of the village to the other side of the mountain, where our ever smiling songthaew driving was waiting for us. Back at the hotel, we relaxed for the rest of the afternoon before spending our final evening at the Chiang Mai night market. On this particular evening I showed up with a particular goal in mind – I hadn’t purchased any souvenirs in Thailand and was determined to find something acceptable in this vast bazaar. But as had been the case in previous visits here, I didn’t see anything that struck my fancy; there was a lot of flea market junk, a lot of cheap clothing, but nothing that stood out and screamed “Thailand!” in my face.
Dejected, I suggested we return to the hotel. As we cut through the back of the market we stumbled upon an artist’s cooperative made up of hilltribe families. I noticed a Lisu woman had several sets of placemats for sale, each embroidered in the tribe’s distinct style of concentric oval loops. They appeared to be a great value but I didn’t care for the colors she had available that night. When she said she didn’t have any in green, a woman at an adjacent table said “Come here! Come here!” as her young daughter pulled out a huge cardboard box full of placemats of different colors. I quickly found four matching mats and negotiated a price of 125 baht, about three dollars, for the set. As I began to search for spare change, the woman who had displayed the first set of placemats came by with another set of four green mats. Apparently she had just found the set and now wanted me to buy from her instead of the little girl. The girl looked at me, wondering what I would do next. It seemed so petty to make them compete over a measly few bucks, so I apologized as politely as possible to the first woman and completed my transaction with the girl and her mother.
Elsewhere in the co-op, an Akha woman displayed a fine selection of wooden goods, including a four-stringed Thai banjo. It wasn’t of professional quality – I’m sure there’s no way the instrument would ever stay in tune – but it was the first item at the market to get my attention. I asked the woman how much she wanted for it and she said 700 baht. 17 dollars wasn’t bad, but I’d have to lug this thing around for the rest of the week. I initially declined the offer, but she then began to pester me, saying “Very good, I need money, buy yes buy yes….” I started to think that if she just shut up for a minute I’d consider buying it. Eventually I said I’d take it for 200 baht. To my surprise, she then said 250 – six dollars. Having cut the price by two thirds, it suddenly seemed like a fine deal. The Akha woman wrapped it in several layers of newspaper, tying knots around its neck to hold the paper in place. It wasn’t exactly a stellar packing job, but it would have to do for the moment. I now had my prize.
The next day was a total write-off as we waited for the 4pm overnight express train to take us back to Bangkok. Susanne and I bought postcards and hung out in a bakery by the eastern gate of the city. Before grabbing our bags at the hotel, we said goodbye to its two resident mascots, the old blind mastiff and his curly haired poodle mutt friend. They barely acknowledged us, for nap time was too precious in the heat of the afternoon. At the train station I purchased a bag of buns and a bottle of water. Hopefully this would be enough food to keep us full for the trip, since I had heard that Thai train food was expensive and dull. Unfortunately, because I couldn’t read Thai I neglected to notice that I had purchased pork buns accidentally. I tried to eat one but the sight of the pork filling was enough to make me a vegetarian for life. We ended up ordering a mediocre meal of fried rice and pineapple slices for the bargain price of seven dollars. We should have slept on empty stomachs instead.
Back in Bangkok, we had another day to kill before heading out the next morning to Hong Kong. We checked into the Reno Hotel, a Vietnam War-era establishment that catered to low-end business travelers. It left much to be desired, but then again, so did Bangkok. I had really enjoyed my first day in Bangkok, with the temples, the palace, and especially the Thai boxing. But apart from these isolated highlights, Bangkok was a city without a soul. There was little for us to do apart from waste away a local shopping mall, where an ever growing mass of teenagers in designer jeans and sunglasses shopped for platform shoes. Our authentic Thai experience was not to be – at least not today – so we went hog wild with our western crassness, hanging out at the local Hard Rock Cafe before hitting a movie theatre for a showing of Air Force One. (The film, at least, had one unusual moment when the entire audience stood up in honor of the king while the theatre played a brief montage of royal photographs, all to the tune of the royal anthem which the king composed himself.) Watching Harrison Ford bash the hell out of Gary Oldman and his commie thugs gave us the craving for meat, so we ate at McDonalds before crashing at the Reno for the night. Apparently Bangkok had taken its toll on our sense of adventure.

November 19, 1997

Three Wats and a Massage

Filed under: Thailand — Andy Carvin @ 9:24 pm

Dragon head, Wat Chiang Man

During breakfast we talked about our plans for the week. We’d considered flying up to the town of Mae Hong Son for a few days – at $18 roundtrip, it was probably the cheapest flight in the world. But Susanne and I agreed that we had done enough hotel hopping on this trip. We’d stay right here until we needed to get back to Bangkok. Today would be a semi-restful day for us. Susanne wanted to get a message somewhere while I wanted to see some of Chiang Mai’s famous wats. The day was young so we wanted to squeeze in a little of both.
We spent the morning at three of Chiang Mai’s oldest and best known wats: Chiang Man, Phra Singh and Chedi Luang. Normally I would expound on the virtues of each individual wat, their personalities, etc., but today I felt distinctly underwhelmed by them. I think this lack of enthusiasm had less to do with the wats themselves than my recent experience with wats in Laos. Luang Prabang’s wats all gave off a living presence; they were serene, yet full of activity by monks and young novices. The city of Luang Prabang itself also served as a natural complement to these monasteries. Its wats were living, breathing neighborhoods that flowed naturally with the slow pace and friendliness of the community.
In Chiang Mai, wats are always encircled by vulture-like tuk-tuks whose drivers hounded you in aggravating succession. A 7-Eleven store or a go-go bar might share the block across the street from the monks’ living quarters. The wats of Chiang Mai were past tense, anachronistic monuments instead of present-day members of the Chiang Mai family. They were out of place, awkward. Perhaps if I had visited Chiang Mai soon after our arrival in Bangkok I would have appreciated their beauty and magnificence, which architecturally speaking they all possess. But having experienced the grace and vitality of Luang Prabang and its wats, Chiang Mai seems all but a smoggy, traffic-clogged open-air museum.

Wat Chiang Man

Mind you, I don’t want to come down too hard on this city – I mean, it’s a great place to unwind for a few days. But Chiang Mai seems so service-oriented, so tourist-centric, its long history and culture has been superseded by the desire to cater to the throngs of Americans, Australians, Japanese and British tourists who come here. I don’t want to sound naive, but Chiang Mai is a bit of a disappointment. Or perhaps we had reached our saturation point for Buddhist monasteries – that must play a certain role in how I’m feeling at this moment. We’ve been out-watted. Time for a good old fashioned Thai massage.
Susanne had included Thai massage on her short list of must-do’s in Southeast Asia, so we made an appointment with the Rinkaew Povech spa to pick us up at the hotel and take us to their resort on the outskirts of the city. This plan gave Susanne a couple of hours to shower and nap, while it gave me the time to run two important errands: buying train tickets to Bangkok and arranging a hill tribe trek. I caught a tuk-tuk to the train station, about two kilometers from the hotel. The jerk of a driver spent the entire ride pestering me about going to see ceramic shops first. Despite my insistent refusals, he wouldn’t stop asking me, so I ordered him to stop the tuk-tuk. “Train station now, or I walk and pay you zero baht.” “No problem, no problem,” he said. Just outside of the train station he stopped the tuk-tuk and said I should get out here. “You walk, I wait for you and then we go to shops,” he said, displaying mystifying chutzpah. The cheapskate wouldn’t even drive into the station itself – he wanted to avoid going through a police checkpoint. I paid him 10 baht less than we agreed upon initially and walked away. He began to yell at me, so I turned around and pointed to the police kiosk. The driver grumbled something to himself and climbed back into his tuk-tuk to take a nap. I quickly booked passage on the overnight express train for Bangkok leaving Chiang Mai Saturday afternoon at 4:40pm, arriving 6am. This gave us more than enough time to relax in Chiang Mai for a few days.
Next stop: Panda Trekking and Tours. Susanne and I had stopped at Panda along with several other trekking agencies to find a one day walk through some of the northern hilltribe villages. Practically every outfit offered the exact same packages, but for whatever reason I sensed that this particular company had its act together. They were also certified by Thailand’s state tourism regulating authority, which certainly didn’t hurt. We decided to take a five-tribe package which would bring us through small villages around Phrae, two hours outside of Chiang Mai. We had initially discussed flying to Mae Hong Son to visit the famous “long neck” Padong Karen tribes, but this tour gave us more variety for our baht. Seven hundred baht per person, around $15 dollars, would get us transportation, lunch, a guide who happened to be a member of the Lisu tribe, and the chance to visit Lisu, Akha, Lahu, Karen and Palong villages. And since we wouldn’t have to spent the night at a village, that would give us even more time to unwind in Chiang Mai, which was our main reason for being here in the first place.
I got back to the hotel with just enough time to shower before our 3pm ride to the resort picked us up. I should probably note that traditional Thai massage, our massage of choice, has nothing to do with the infamous Thai massage parlors of Bangkok’s Patpong district. Traditional massage is a primary element of traditional Thai medicine, which bears some similarity to Chinese medicine and India’s Ayurvedic medicine. Basically, massage is used to either relax a patient or solve a particular medical ailment through accupressure techniques. For our purposes, though, we’d stick to the relaxation side of the therapy.
Massages cost 200 baht an hour, about five dollars, so we purchased tickets for 90-minute sessions. We were led to a dimly lit cubicle with two mattresses on the floor. Susanne and I both put on a pair of baggy pajamas that were loose enough for a good massage job yet eliminated the need for your masseuse to touch your skin directly. I found it quite hard to relax initially, for the pantaloon pajamas made me look like some 19th century maharaja or some Gilbert and Sullivan pirate character. Susanne and I laughed hysterically for some time until my masseuse walked in, a squat Thai woman who bore a strange resemblance to Rosanne Barr. She was quite serious about getting started, gesturing me to lie down on the bed. I tried to explain to her that we both wanted massages for our back and feet, but she stared blankly at me. I repeated my request, pointing at my back and feet. She shook her head and made the same motion for me to lie down face up on the mattress. I got the message. Don’t tell me how to do my job. This was to be her show and I was in no place to dictate the terms of the program.
Another woman entered the room and ordered Susanne to get on her back as well. They sat below our feet and began to twist, crush, rub, press, knead and squeeze their ways across our bodies. I had expected the message to be a lot of complex hand movements but my masseuse used her fingers, knuckles, elbows, knees and heels to exert incredible pressure all over me. For example, while massaging my calf, Rosanne ground her knuckles in a rolling motion – I thought I was going to get a cramp. But for the shin muscles, which are much harder and denser tissue, she held my leg in place with one of her legs while thrusting her elbow in a wave-like fashion. I didn’t know whether to scream or sigh in relaxation. The entire massage was really just full-body accupressure therapy. Some times she would press her whole body weight into my back and then hold it for 10 seconds. As she worked her way up my feet, hands, legs, arms, back, neck and head, Rosanne would talk in Thai with Susanne’s masseuse. From their tone and their snickering it sounded like they were both ripping on their husbands or something. Yet they managed to shoot the breeze while twisting and shoving every muscle group on our bodies in the allotted 90 minutes.
Early on in the massage I tried to pay attention to her technique, just in case I ever wanted to attempt it myself. But sometimes when the pain was so exquisite I was unable to think of anyone on whom I would want to inflict this ancient Thai torture. At the 90 minute mark, Rosanne gave my head a triplet of light karate chops, a movement she used to end each muscle group massage. I was quite relaxed, as I had hoped, but yet I was exhausted, sore and limp. Was this the intended result, or was my farang body just not used to such refined traditional attention? It’s hard to say.
Walking back to the van my body was a dead weight, my mind blank. Susanne and I tried to discuss what we thought of the whole bit, but I didn’t have much to say. Hell, I didn’t have much to say about anything. Tabula rasa. There’s something very Buddhist about being clear of mind and body, so in that sense my traditional Thai massage treatment was an unqualified success. But the accompanying sores and bruises had me wondering out loud as to how we’d feel the next day during our three hours of hill walking. Until then, I guess, I’d enjoy the agony of utter blankness.
We ate dinner at Pizza Hut, a sign that we were already pining for the flavours and relative hygiene of American cuisine. The streets outside were crowded with shoppers, for we were eating in the heart of the night bazaar. Stall after stall tempted us with t-shirts, faux leather luggage, fake Rolexes, Hello Kitty backpacks, African masks, Tibetan thangka paintings and hundreds of other items I could have easily gotten elsewhere. I was actually surprised at the limited amount of distinctly Thai items available at the bazaar. Sure, you could get elephant paperweights and Singha Beer t-shirts, but most of the available products were generic items you could get at a US fleamarket. Perhaps most disappointing was the lack of selection for hilltribe-related souvenirs. I didn’t have any specific purchases in mind, but if I did buy hilltribe goods, I’d at least like to buy them from actual hilltribe vendors. Perhaps it was just a matter of finding them – this was a big market.
At one point we stumbled upon a row of seedy bars, all on one side of a thin, dark underground hallway. There was practically no light apart from the neon and black lights that were prerequisite, and each joint seemed to have their resident prostitute sitting at the bar trying to entice prospective customers. Business did not seem very good, apart from a couple of backpackers playing Nintendo with one of the hookers. A bar at the far end of the strip was playing Hendrix. Foxy Lady. Susanne and I looked at each other and said, “Saigon. Shit.”, as if the words themselves were flowing out of Martin Sheen’s mouth in Apocalypse Now. Further along, the music switched to the Police and that damn “I’m a Barbie Girl” song. On this particular evening, the Chiang Mai go-go scene just didn’t seem as hip as the night market. We returned to the streets to browse the bazaar, soak in the atmosphere and head back to the hotel for a good night’s rest before a long day trekking in hilltribe country.

November 18, 1997

Chiang Mai Bound

Filed under: Thailand — Andy Carvin @ 10:51 pm

It’s Tuesday morning, less than a week before leaving Thailand for Hong Kong. The last two weeks have been somewhat frantic, moving around every couple of days. So we’ve decided to head to Chiang Mai, the unofficial capital of northern Thailand, and use it as our base for the rest of the week. Maybe we’d take a trek for a day or two, maybe not. As long as we weren’t on the move with our backpacks every 48 hours, I’d be happy.
A little after 9am we checked out of the Golden Triangle Inn and walked to the bus station down the road. I purchased two first class tickets to Chiang Mai, a four-hour trip for about $2.50 each. The only trouble was that the bus didn’t leave until 11am so we returned to the hotel and worked on our journals in the cafe. Eventually we returned to the station and boarded the bus. Air conditioning was a major bonus on this particular trip, since half of the road was under construction and unpaved, causing a billowing cloud of dust and debris wherever the bus went. But air con couldn’t save us from the bumps and bounces. I’d never felt so carsick before that day, but each bump brought me one step closer to puking on the poor monk sitting in front of me. I’d hate to ruin those saffron robes of his. I managed to focus my attention on the people in the bus, allowing my nausea to recede. Susanne, however, looked quite uncomfortable and kept her head tucked down between her knees. I’d have to go shopping for Dramamine in Chiang Mai, I guess.
2:30pm, we pulled into Chiang Mai Arcade Station on the northwest outskirts of town. The moment we disembarked the bus we were propositioned by a horde of touts for a taxi ride. I asked one woman how much to the Galare Guesthouse, a midrange hotel near the Ping River. She said 50 baht, about $1.25. We got into her songthaew, a Nissan pickup, and we were on our way.
Chiang Mai has the reputation of being a big Thai city without all the troubles of Bangkok. Traffic was steady, but not an obstacle to our progress – a significant plus over Bangkok in my book. We drove by several large hotels, a bright yellow superstore of some kind, several Shell and Exxon stations, even a big white church. This was Thailand? I had my doubts. Susanne turned to me at some point and said, “We’re in Fort Lauderdale.” Quite possibly, it seemed. Perhaps Chiang Mai was a darling of westerners because it was the West, plain and simple. We’d soon find out.
The Galare Guesthouse is actually a pleasant hotel with a riverside view, a nice garden, teak bungalows and two resident canines: an English terrier and a large, crazy-eyed boxer that seemed to enjoy nothing more than sleeping in places where guests might accidentally trip over him. Susanne wanted to chill out at the hotel, so I spent an hour walking around, trying to get a feel for the place. First impression: there are no Thais in Chiang Mai. Seventy-five percent of the people I see are westerners. Deadheads in tie-dyes. Snowbirds with Gucci bags and excessive makeup. Partygoers in muscle shirts and bikini tops. My God, Susanne was right – this was Fort Lauderdale! All of the businesses here are either tourist oriented or automotive. Trekking tours. Mechanic’s garage. Money Exchange. Auto Body Repair. Pizza Hut. Muffler Shop. I concluded only two types of people were allowed to enter Chiang Mai: tourists, and people who drive tourists around.
A few blocks from the hotel vendors were setting up stalls for the daily night market, perhaps the largest night market in Thailand. Stall after stall, row after row, I could see fake leather goods, fake watches, fake antiques, fake Nikes. Alarm clocks, socks, statues of naked African women. It must get better than this, I thought. Back at the hotel, I got Susanne and we wandered the neighborhood until sunset. The night market continued to gain strength but it was still early – perhaps getting dinner would kill enough time for things to rev up. Susanne wanted to splurge on a good meal that night, so we ate at Piccolo Roma, an Italian restaurant just around the corner from our hotel. To my greatest surprise, it was a wonderfully authentic Italian restaurant experience, from the Pavarotti on the stereo to the chef coming out of the kitchen to take our order personally. We both ordered onion soup; I then had gnocci al pesto while Susanne got a stuffed pasta platter. Fresh, hot, thoroughly delicious.
We sat next to a Norwegian couple: the wife was in Asia on business while her husband, a professor of insect biology, was on sabbatical and traveling along just to enjoy himself. We chatted about our Thailand experiences as well as the ecology of the country and Thailand’s inability to protect it. They were going to Burma the next day, and when we told them of all of the tiger and clouded leopard skins we had seen, the husband went off on the lack of realistic protective measures to stop the extinction of these cats. Sensing he would sympathize, I briefly brought up Norway’s whaling policy, which they both agreed was barbaric and totally unnecessary for such a wealthy western nation. The husband’s specialty was beetles, and he had spent a great deal of time in Costa Rica. We asked if he had seen any good bugs here in Thailand, and he pulled out a live beetle out of his pocket, kept safely in a polished wooden box. Yep, he was a beetle biologist alright.
After dinner, we decided to have a stroll through the night market. There were surprisingly few people out and about, which made sense a few minutes later as rain showers began to pelt down on us. The rains felt good hitting my face – it was easily 90 degrees outside, even after dark, so the cool waters were a pleasant relief. Market vendors scurried around in a humorous panic, pulling their goods under tarps, further into the tents. Most of the market was covered with these large tents, so it was interesting to walk along the inside as rain dripped from roof drains, the sound of the storm pounding away outside.
As the rains came down, Chiang Mai finally transformed from Fort Lauderdale to Thailand for a few hours. I don’t know if that makes much sense, but the sound of the rain, the dampness of the air and the smell of the ozone all served as powerful reminders that were indeed in Southeast Asia. As hard as Chiang Mai tries to seem western to Westerners, the rain exposes it for what it is, a Thai town getting healthy a dousing during the late monsoon. Though the rain lasted only an hour or two, it was my favorite moment in Chiang Mai. The rains slowed activities to a crawl. No more crowds, no more hard bargaining. Just another Asian city in a warm evening shower.

November 11, 1997

A Travel Day: Cambodia to Thailand to the Meeting Place

Filed under: Thailand — Andy Carvin @ 11:26 pm

Pochentong Airport, Phnom Penh

There’s not too much to report today. The next stop on our itinerary is Vientiane, the capital of Laos, but there are no flights directly from Phnom Penh until Friday. So we must take a circuitous route – from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, to Bangkok and Udon Thani, all by air; then, a minibus to the Thai border town of Nong Khai. We’d spend the night there before crossing into Laos and making the short drive to Vientiane.
The flights all went smoothly, though the four-hour layovers got old rather quickly. But the day got a bit more interesting when we drove into Nong Khai at 8pm. We were heading to The Meeting Place, a bar and guesthouse run by an Aussie expat named Alan Patterson. Alan arranges visas for Laos, so I had emailed him ahead of time in order to have our paperwork ready when we got there. The Meeting Place was a dusty old teak house with a large bar downstairs and bedrooms upstairs. Near the bar we found Alan and his Thai wife, an Aussie couple who had stopped by for dinner, and a toothless, very drunk Brit named Joe. Joe was hitting on the Aussie woman, but her husband ignored it almost as well as she did. A large brown boxer sat on the floor next to a much smaller chestnut poodle.
Alan’s wife offered us accommodations upstairs in a large, cobwebbed room with two hard beds, a rusty fan and screened windows that barely kept out the mosquitoes. At 150 baht – about four dollars – it was better than wandering around Nong Khai in search of a better place. I returned downstairs as the Aussie couple was heading out. That meant Joe, the cockney drunk, would have only us to talk to. He immediately began to teach Susanne some Thai by demonstrating how he would hit on a Thai woman. I was a bit concerned about this guy at first, but it was pretty obvious that old Joe was totally harmless. “Iz shee ya woife?” he asked me. “Yes,” I lied, hoping this would have some implications. “I’m jus’ goin’ta show ‘er ‘ow I’d ‘it on a Pretty Thai Lady,” he said, his head swaying around while he tried to sustain eye contact with me. “I jus’ don’t wannta get punched in me noze by you forrit.” “I won’t punch you,” I responded, “but maybe she will.” Joe then took Susanne by the hand and said in an innocent voice, “Khun cheu arai? Khun cheu arai?” Susanne looked at me for translation. “What’s your name, he asked.” “Oh… Susanne.”
This went back and forth as Joe asked Susanne about where she was from and if she liked Thailand. Despite our attempts to convince him we were ready to go to bed, Joe insisted on telling his life story, which went something like this. He was 61 years old and hated living in Britain. A long time ago, his wife died, so he and a friend left the UK to wander South America for many years. One day back in England, his friend suggested they move to Thailand and open a bar. Joe wanted to go back to Peru instead. So they decided to settle it with a game of cards. Joe lost, so he suggested they try a coin toss instead. He lost again. Darts. Lost. Snooker. Lost. So they moved to Thailand, bought a bar and married two local girls.
Joe was doing well and was happy with his young wife, but his friend drank constantly and fooled around with prostitutes, so they ran out of money and the bar went bust. Joe and his wife moved on and made several attempts at starting a sod business. “I tried North English grass, Kentucky bluegrass, you name it,” he said. “But none of the grass would grow. You know why? ‘Cause it doesn’t fuckin’ grow in Thailand, that’s why!” Once he realized his strategic error, Joe started a rubber tree farm. He’s kept at it, and now he has around 3000 trees. I couldn’t exactly picture this guy growing rubber for a living, but at least his story was colorful enough for 15 minutes’ worth of entertainment.
Just as we got ready to head up for bed, a middle aged man with a crewcut, tatooed arms and fatigues began to bang on the locked gate. “Where’s Alan? That Aussie bastard,” he hissed at us. “Wake him up. Tell him it’s Bob from Canada. He owes me a thousand baht.” Joe started hollering “Alan! Alan!” prompting Alan to holler back through his bedroom door and eventually get out of bed. Joe then turned to Bob and said, “Bob from Canada, were you in the military?” Bob scowled back, “Fuck no!,” as if it should be obvious by his fatigues and tats that he’s a dyed-in-the-wool civilian. We took this as our cue to go to bed, so we headed upstairs and crashed in our house of cobwebs. The dogs barked and howled most of the night.
ps – Susanne does a great write-up of our encounter with Joe.

November 7, 1997

Bang Pa-In Palace and the Ruins of Ayutthaya

Filed under: Thailand — Andy Carvin @ 10:43 pm

Buddha Statue, Wat Yai Chai Mongkol

Susanne and I got up at 6am and ate breakfast downstairs at the Guesthouse Cafe. It was cool and damp outside – I think it might have rained a bit during the night. Today we’d catch a 7am minibus that would take us on a day trip to the ruins of Ayutthaya, the Thai capital from 1359 to 1767. The tour cost 450 baht per person – about 11 dollars each – and it included visits to two of the major ruins, lunch, a short boat ride, and a stop at the 19th century royal retreat, the Bang Pa-In Palace. A minibus drove up a few minutes past seven, so we climbed in with our daypacks, cameras, and plenty of film.
The minibus drove us two minutes down to Khao San Road, at which point we were booted out and told to wait for the real minibus. Apparently this bus was just a local pickup service that brings us to the motor pool to wait for our actual ride. We met an Australian college student who was going on the Ayutthaya tour as well. He had been traveling around northern Thailand for a couple of weeks and was just about to wrap up his visit. Within a few minutes, another minibus pulled up, this one cramped with people. The driver opened up the door and shouted “Ayutthaya bus!” The three of us managed to squeeze inside, although there were really only one two seats available. Susanne and I lucked out with the small space near the back of the bus, while the Australian backpacker had to share a single seat with our guide for the day. Lucky for him they were both very thin people.
We drove north for two hours through the morning rush hour traffic and into open highway country. As I did when I arrived in Thailand, I began to have flashbacks of my old home in Florida: expressways, self-pump gas stations, Home Depots and other megastores, strip malls. Even the greenery looked the same, though here they had miles of rice paddies instead of swamp land and savanna. The air conditioning in the van didn’t work too well – we’d have phases of cold air, warm air, then cold again. I think the freon only kicked in when the driver had his foot on the gas. On several occasions, we’d exit the highway, do a U-turn, and drive back in the other direction. Several of the passengers started to snicker the third or fourth time this happened. On the fifth occasion, I tried to pay attention to the exits along the highway – it seemed that in this case, you had to be going west in order to catch the next exit. I guess placing exits on both sides of a divided highway wasn’t necessarily standard operating procedure here.
We drove through a small town for a few miles before reaching the gates of Bang Pa-In Palace. The current palace was built by Rama V in the 1870s after he paid a visit to the courts of Great Britain and Versailles. Because of his interest in European architecture, much of the palace grounds were modeled on what the king had seen during his travels. The palace itself was immaculate – perfectly manicured lawns, topiaries, weeping willows – I felt I was walking behind the Contemporary Resort Hotel at Disney World. We briefly visited a large Chinese mansion and a lighthouse, but on the whole, our stop at Bang Pa-In was notably unmemorable. Besides, I was eager to eager to see the ruins of Ayutthaya. Ever since visiting the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza as a kid, I’ve been enthralled with all things archeological: it was the main reason Susanne and I visited the Nabataean ruins of Petra in Jordan two years ago, and it undoubtedly contributed to our decision to go to Cambodia and its famed city of Angkor. Thailand’s most famous archeological sites, Sukhothai and Ayutthaya, were both former capitals of the nation before the monarchy moved the government to Bangkok around 200 years ago. We weren’t sure if we’d have time on this trip to visit Sukhothai, six hours to the north, but it was hard to pass up Ayutthaya considering its relative proximity to Bangkok.
The Ayutthaya archeological park is scattered amongst the modern city of Ayutthaya. Most visitors need to hire a taxi to take them around from site to site, which was one of the primary reasons we decided to catch a minibus tour, since in the end a tour would probably cost the same as going up to Ayutthaya on our own. As we drove through modern Ayutthaya, a medium size town, I could see centuries-old stone stupas in the distance. We approached one of the stupas, then drove right past it – it was now the center of a roundabout. Modern Ayutthaya was littered with such random plots of history.
A few minutes later, we reached Wat Yai Chai Mongkol, our first stop in town. The wat dates back to the mid-14th century, when Thai king U Thong constructed a small monastery here for personal meditation. Over the centuries, the wat was expanded to included a massive stone stupa that rises some 200 feet into the air. The stupa is surrounded by over a hundred stone Buddha statues, each one of them wrapped in shiny saffron robes, as is the custom in much of southeast Asia.

Buddha statues, Wat Yai Chai Mongkol, Ayutthaya

The group scattered in all directions once we exited the minibus. Susanne and I walked along the side of the wat past a large stone reclining Buddha. Behind it a large crowd of people entered the ancient wooden sim, an unassuming temple that was easily overshadowed by the tall stone stupa looming behind it. Pilgrims kneeled before a bronze Buddha inside the sim, while others lit oil lamps installed along one side of the temple. There was a large ceremonial gong here – boy, I was tempted to ring it. I assumed it would be a serious faux pas for a farang such as myself to stroll on over and bang a sacred gong, so I turned and walked away. Then behind me I heard a loud baritone crash – the Thai guide for a French tour group has just hit the gong and was inviting members of her group to give it a shot. Now that the ice was broken, I waited my turn and eventually got hold of the felt covered hammer used to ring this grand old instrument. I gave it a whack in the center and the gong emitted a pleasant ring, much softer than I expected. That tour guide must have really given it all she had, I guess.

Boulevard of Buddhas, Wat Yai Chai Mongkol, Ayutthaya

We walked through to the back of the sim and out the other side, where a long row of stone Buddhas hugged the outer pathway of the main stupa. As far as stupas go, this one was impressive. It lacked the colorful mysticism of the stupas of Kathmandu, but I was still quite impressed, probably because of the monstrous stone cold nature of the thing. I climbed its steep steps to an upper platform that afforded a nice view of the scores of Buddha statues below, but I wasn’t high enough to see any of the other archeological sites in the distance – too many modern buildings obscured the view. At the center of the stupa, far above the ground, I found crowds checking out a dark stone chamber that wreaked of bat guano. I couldn’t see what all the people were looking at, but when I got inside I heard the sound of squeaking bats, undoubtedly annoyed from all of the attention. I pinched my nose and climbed back down to get some pictures of statues around the back of the stupa.
Eventually our group reassembled near the minibus out by the parking lot. Susanne became fascinated with a large rooster that was strutting around the entrance of the park – I don’t remember how long she stood there waiting to get a picture of it in mid- cockle doodle doo, but she certainly seemed pleased when the moment finally came.
After a quiet ride in the van, we stopped for lunch at a cozy garden restaurant. We sat right next to one of the canals that surround the perimeter of Ayutthaya and shared a tasty meal of sauteed vegetables, spring rolls, some kind of mild chicken soup, and fried chicken with basil and cauliflower. Susanne didn’t trust the food at all and stuck with a plate of hot rice, but I took my chances and tried a bit of everything. I’m sure the food would be OK – besides, I’m vaccinated for hepatitis A and taking multiple daily doses of Pepto Bismol. Up to this point in the minibus tour, none of the group had really talked to each other, apart from their own little cliques. But now people began to open up. We soon learned more about the group: a young Malaysian man who now lived in Australia, a Tamil woman born in Texas but residing in Singapore, four Brits, two Swiss women and the aforementioned young Australian. The Brits, who all appeared like hearty backpacking veterans, kept to themselves the entire time, but the rest of us had a nice conversation about where we all had been, previous travel adventures and the like. Nai, the cheery Malaysian Australian man, possessed a wicked sense of humor and a blunt approach to chit chat. When the two Swiss woman introduced themselves, he immediately quipped, “Oh Switzerland, yes. I hear it’s very lovely, but it has a really high suicide rate, right? Nothing better to do, I guess.” I think this caught the Swiss off-guard, but no one took offense. Nai seemed to have a scathing comment about all of our home countries at some point.
We closed lunch with some coffee and fresh fruit, including sliced banana, pineapple, and some odd hot pink fruit that tasted (to me, at least) like cheese popcorn. None of us could figure out what it was. Eventually we asked the wait staff and were told that it was papaya – I don’t think I ever would have guessed that’s what papaya tasted like. At first I really didn’t care for it, but after five or six bites it started to grow on me. I figured papaya trees grow everywhere around this part of Asia, so chances are I’d be stuck eating it elsewhere in the trip. Might as well learn to like the stuff.
Back on the bus, we made a quick drive to Vihara Phra Mongkol Bopit, an historic temple popular with Buddhist pilgrims. Inside its sim sits an incredible bronze Buddha statue, one of the largest in southeast Asia. I stood at its pedestal looking upward – I really don’t know how tall it was, but I’d guess it was at least 60 feet. It was too dark inside to get a good picture; I wish I had bought a postcard from one of the monks inside. The sim was one of the first built in Ayutthaya, but it was razed to the ground when the Burmese sacked the city in 1767. It took almost 200 years for the Thais to restore the temple to its original splendour, but most visitors today would agree it was well worth the wait.
Our last stop of the day was Wat Phra Si Sanphet, three soaring Ceylonese stupas that stand near the ruins of the royal palace. I was glad they saved the best for last – these stupas were probably the most spectacular ruins in Ayutthaya. Wat Phra Si Sanphet is now a large park, surrounded by numerous trees and thick, flowing grass. We’d have almost two hours to climb among the ruins here, so the group took off in all directions as if we were kids who had just stumbled upon an ancient playground.

The giant stupas of Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Ayutthaya

I strolled along the park, amazed at the size and grandeur of the stone stupas. This was the Ayutthaya I had expected. Susanne and I climbed one of the many granite platforms that occupy the space between each stupa. We were approached by a teenaged girl and her mother, who was carrying a large umbrella to keep the sun away. They said hello and asked us where we were from. I immediately took this as an opportunity to try out my Thai – “Phom Cheu Andy, cheu Susanne.” The mother and daughter smiled and introduced themselves as well; unfortunately, my ears weren’t totally attuned to Thai speech so I had a hard time getting their names. I smiled and responded by asking where they were from: “Khun maa chaak thee nai?” “Maa chaak Lopburi,” the girl said. I think Lopburi is north of here, but I had no idea how to ask that in Thai. They then asked us in English if we would pose for a picture, which we did gladly. Thais seemed to enjoy getting pictures of us as much as we liked getting pictures of them, so it was only fair for us to be good sports about it.
We circled the back of the stupas and found a grove of trees to catch some desperately needed shade. Susanne chatted with an English couple that apparently lived somewhere in the US now, though I didn’t hear enough of the conversation to find out where. I then noticed a group of uniformed Thai schoolkids who were staring at us across the field. I made eye contact with them and several of the girls giggled. Susanne and I decided to go over and say hello. “Sawatdee khap,” I said. “Phom cheu Andy. Cheu Susanne. Pen khon American.” One of the smaller boys stepped forward and introduced himself as well. Soon the entire group took their turns saying hello, some using English, some speaking Thai. Susanne motioned to her camera to see if they’d let us take a picture of them. The kids immediately huddled together for a nice group photo.

Across the street I could see Wat Changlom, a tall stone prang that looked like a peeled cucumber. Wat Changlom wasn’t officially on today’s itinerary, but there it was, so Susanne and I decided to head over for a quick visit. As we crossed through a field of grass to reach the prang, a young girl came running towards us, smiling yet with an odd sense of urgency. I thought she was coming over to say hello. Once she reached us, she pointed to a small kiosk back by the side of the road and said, “20 baht please.” It hadn’t occurred to us that there would be a separate entrance fee for this wat. So we walked over to the kiosk, somewhat embarrassed, and paid the little girl’s mother the 40 baht for the two of us. I quietly apologized to the woman. “Kohthoht Khap,” – excuse me, I said. She replied, “Mai pen rai” – it doesn’t matter. I seemed to find myself in this same exchange over and over on this trip. At least my mistakes allowed me to work on my Thai accent.
We walked towards the prang along a grass covered causeway. On both sides were the foundations of stone temples that have long since vanished. Susanne suggested I climb up to the prang’s upper platform so she could get a picture. The steps were terribly chipped, not to mention very thin, so I had a hard time climbing up. The sun was really bearing down on us now – each step made me a little more sweaty, a little more uncomfortable. And Susanne’s camera doesn’t have a zoom on it – oh, I hope it was worth it. At the top, I had a great view of the three large stupas across the road, despite the sticky haze that hung in the air. A Japanese family approached the foot of the prang and the father encouraged his daughter to make the climb as well. We met halfway down the steps, she panting from exhaustion, I panting from fear of tumbling the rest of the way down. We looked at each other and I threw up my hands as if to say “What on earth are we doing?” She laughed aloud and smiled, apparently getting some kind of meaning from my gesticulating.
Susanne met me at a mid-level platform and we walked around the prang to see if there was a view from the other side- not really. Some Thai girls were posing for a photograph when I saw a dog sitting on the stone steps above them. I quietly approached the dog and gave it a little tap on its rear. The dog happily trotted down the steps, right into the pack of girls. They all broke out in hysterical laughter. I stood there innocently and smiled back at them. There really wasn’t much to see on the back end of the prang, so we climbed down and headed back across the street to an outdoor market, just to the left of the stupas. Susanne spent some time exploring the sights and smells of the dried fish and vegetables while I headed straight to a bottled water vendor.
Our group was supposed to meet below a gazebo across the road in 10 minutes, so we made our way over and enjoyed a brief respite in the shade. Once everyone was assembled, the driver arrived and loaded us into the minibus. The first hour of the ride back was quiet as we were all worn out from the afternoon sun. As we reached the outskirts of Bangkok, though, everything turned to gridlock. Hellish Gridlock. Construction along the highway had caused a 30 mile backup that forced us to stop the van every 20 feet and then sit for five minutes or more. The traffic situation was unbearable – the air conditioning only worked when the van moved, and since we weren’t moving, it was only a matter of minutes before the entire group started to sweat like pigs. For the next 90 minutes everyone sat in silent frustration and anger. I did my best to relax and accept the fact that there was nothing I could do about it, but irritability was contagious. I’m tempted to say more about this experience, but thinking about it just gets me all tense again, so let’s just say that two hours later, we finally got back to Banglamphu and our guesthouse. Susanne ran straight for the shower upstairs while I guzzled Coke and bottled water in the foyer. We ate toast and sesame buns for dinner, for we worried a big dinner might keep us up late.
Tomorrow we were going to Cambodia. I hoped I’d fall asleep quickly; otherwise I might end up dwelling on the days ahead.

November 6, 1997

Bangkok’s Wat Pho, The Grand Palace, Chinatown

Filed under: Thailand — Andy Carvin @ 9:10 pm

Statue guardians, the Grand Palace

I managed 12 splendid hours of sleep last night, despite the sub-par conditions of our room and beds. Today we would attempt to visit some of the great wats of Bangkok, famous throughout Southeast Asia. We began our day with a walk south past the Grand Palace to Wat Pho, the largest and oldest temple in Bangkok. The Palace didn’t open until 8:30am, so Wat Pho seemed a natural first stop. Technically, the monastery opened to the public at 8am, but when we arrived around 8:05, there was no sign of any staff to collect our entry fee of 20 baht each. So we strolled through the open gate and made ourselves at home (we’d pay as soon as we saw the ticket collector, of course – I promise…)

Wat Pho

Wat Pho is a magnificent complex of temples, pagodas, gardens, and glittering chedis reminiscent of turn-of-the-century B&W photos I had once seen of Sri Lanka. Apart from a handful of monks and the resident cats and dogs, we had the wat to ourselves. The silence and serenity made the moment all the more glorious. We wandered through the gardens, marveling at the sun’s rays dancing off the chedis and the dozens of stone Buddhas swathed in saffron-dyed robes. Susanne headed off on her own in one direction while I entered one of the wat’s major sims – central temples used as houses of worship. Inside I found a massive bronze Buddha coated in gold foil, surrounded by several dozen candles and incense sticks. A lone monk encouraged me to enter and take pictures, so I took off my shoes outside and came in for a closer look. I was somewhat surprised that photography was allowed in here, but the monk smiled and raised his hands in the shape of a camera in front of his face and again waved me closer to get the shot.
I met up with Susanne and we continued to scour the monastery grounds. By now, what began as a trickle of fellow visitors opened up into a flood of camera-toting Americans, French and Japanese tour groups, all squawking loudly in their languages of choice as guides led them around with multicoloured umbrellas. One of the groups was wrapping up a visit to the main sim, which I surmised was where Wat Pho’s pride and joy was kept – the great Reclining Buddha. Once again we removed our shoes and entered the temple, this time to find a gargantuan golden Buddha, 46 meters long and 15 meters high. I had never seen anything like it before. Susanne commented how there was no chance our cameras could ever capture the sheer size of this graceful being, so we focused less on taking pictures and more on appreciating the moment – it’s not like there are any convenient giant reclining Buddhas back in DC for us to visit.

The giant Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho

Inside the Grand Palace

By 9am, Wat Pho teamed with hordes of farangs, so we bid goodbye to Buddha and doubled back to the north gate of the Grand Palace, a ten minute walk along the palace’s high white walls. The palace itself is really more of a compound containing the traditional royal residence, various halls of audiences and important wats and ceremonial gardens. Upon entering the gate and making our way through the ticket line (where I was playfully chastised by the ticket ladies for saying “two persons, please” in Thai so it sounded more like “three persons, please”), we found ourselves in front of Wat Phra Kaew, one of the grandest temples in all of Bangkok. The pagoda’s tiles flashed with thousands of multicoloured glass tiles, while the gilding of the giant chedis added even more dazzle to this wondrous site. Everything was so close together it was hard to squeeze through the throng of tourists just to get a good picture.
We climbed about the main platforms surrounding the golden chedis and then entered the monastery’s giant sim. At the heart of the sim, surrounded by a golden throne, sat the Emerald Buddha – the venerable talisman of the Thai monarchy. The Buddha, actually made from jade, is a 75cm stone statue that sits well protected in a bulletproof glass case. Those who enter the pagoda are forbidden to take pictures and are requested to sit or kneel on the floor, lest they insult the Buddha by standing arrogantly in his presence. Experts still debate its origins, but Thais traditionally believe that the Buddha statue was carved in India and brought to Chiang Rai by way of Sri Lanka in the 15th century. For the next 300 years, the Emerald Buddha served as the symbolic representative of regional hegemony, as conquering kings and generals would seize the statue and bring it back to their capital to place legitimacy on their reign. During these tumultuous centuries, the Buddha moved from Chiang Rai to Lampang, to Luang Prabang and Vientiane in Laos, back to Thailand by way of Thonburi (just across from modern Bangkok) and finally to Bangkok itself by General Chakri in the late 18th century. With the Emerald Buddha in his grasp, Chakri laid claim to the throne and proclaimed himself as king of Siam – today he is known as Rama I, the founder of the current Chakri dynasty. The Buddha remains inside the palace at Wat Phra Kaew, where it is adorned with royal robes – one robe each for the hot, rainy and cool seasons of the year. And to this day, only the king himself may change the Buddha’s robes.

Wat Phra Kaew, the Grand Palace

Royal residence and gardens, the Grand Palace

Just south of Wat Phra Kaew we visited the gardens of the royal palace residence. The residence and the grand halls adjacent to it have not been the actual living residence of the king for some years now, yet they are still used for coronations, official ceremonies and the interment of royal ashes. At the center of the garden is Chakri Mahaprasat, the Great Holy Hall of Chakri. Built in 1882 by British architects, the hall combines an odd, yet successful blend of Thai, Victorian and Italian Renaissance architecture. Something about it harkened back to images of the great halls of Amsterdam or Brussels, but it still possessed a certain flair that was uniquely Thai. The tourists certainly seemed to eat it up.
We paused for a brief snack of prepackaged Haagen Dasz imported from New Jersey. We then continued north to Wat Mahathat, Thailand’s premiere house of Buddhist learning. While Wat Mahathat is centered around a sim like other wats, its grounds extend for several acres in the form of tree-lined alleys and hidden passageways, all home to students, monks and some local families as well. It was a serene neighborhood surrounded by the anarchic din of Bangkok traffic. While I enjoyed the peace and quiet it provided, I felt that at some level we were intruding here, despite the friendliness of its residents. Eventually we left the campus and continued east into the heart of Bangkok.

Listen to the sounds of Bangkok!
(Requires RealAudio)
Weaving through traffic in a Tuk-Tuk
Worshippers chanting at Wat Suthat

It was now close to 11am and the heat was bearing down on us. After walking for ten minutes or so, Susanne wisely suggested we catch a tuk-tuk – Thailand’s answer to India’s three-wheeled motorized autorickshaws – and proceed to another wat. So we flagged down the next available tuk-tuk and roared through town to Wat Suthat, a medium size monastery that boasts one of the largest surviving Sukhothai-style bronze Buddhas, known for its thin face and sinewy fingers. The wat itself was modest compared to others we had seen this morning, yet at that particular time there was a prayer service inside, with one monk leading a group of 30 or so women in a solemn chant. I sat quietly on the floor and listened to the hypnotic drone. I captured some of the chanting on my tape recorder, though I left my camera inside my bag – it seemed a little rude to whip it out at this particular moment. The tape recorder at least allow for a more subtle approach to capturing the event.
We left Wat Suthat and turned south along a tree-lined parkway. Our next stop was Pahurat, a series of markets and neighborhoods that included Indiantown and Chinatown. The markets first appeared as a series of stalls running parallel to each side of the street. We were in the textiles and garment district – everything the cheapest of face towels to the finest silk suits could be had here for the right amount of baht.
The market street terminated at a busy intersection. But the Chinatown bazaar was supposed to continue through the next block – where was it? A crowd of people covered the other side of the street, but as they moved across the intersection it became clear that the street did indeed continue up ahead, in the form of a thin alleyway that was no wider than a car’s width across. This was gonna be tight.
We joined the hordes of shoppers and moved into the alley. It was wall-to-wall people – you couldn’t avoid having another person touching and pressing into you at all times. A pickpocket’s paradise, I thought. In order to move deeper into the bazaar, you had no choice but to go with the flow – quite literally. Pushing and shoving made no difference here, so we let the human wave carry us forward. Inside the bazaar it was hot, humid and roaring with the cacophony of shoppers and sellers. The vendors added to the din with their various noisemakers, including alarm clocks, cellular pagers, boomboxes blaring Thai pop, Indian dance music, even Aqua’s now-ubiquitous “Barbie Girl” song. I bet the noise gave sellers the upper hand when bargaining – it was too loud to think so I’m sure it was damn near impossible to haggle with a clear head.
The market continued block after block for about a kilometer. Shoppers swarmed in all directions while the occasional beggar lay on the ground, wailing for alms, as nearly everyone stepped over them without even acknowledging their presence. (These beggars, I should note, were truly few and far between in Bangkok. I’d see more homeless people on my walk to work in DC than I’d see in a full day in Bangkok.) We pressed through the bazaar for half an hour until I started to feel a bit light headed. The air was hot and sticky and I hadn’t fully adjusted to Bangkok time, so we paused at the next major intersection to rest with a couple bottles of Coke.
My thirst quenched, I was ready to get up and go. But as we tried to continue east, the bazaar’s traffic thinned out back to an average street – whoops, we were lost. The LP guide contained a map of Pahurat and the market areas, but we had reached a neighborhood where none of the streets were labeled in English. I wondered if we were supposed to have turned left back where we bought the sodas. Not knowing exactly where we were, I suggested we walk north until we reached a major intersection. After a block or two we reached an impressive wat – a landmark on the map, I hoped. I looked at the map and saw a wat that was in the general vicinity of where I thought we were, but this wat was closed to the public, and the wat listed in the book was supposed to be a major tourist attraction. We walked its perimeter just to see if we could get inside and ask someone directions (I was eager to see if I remembered how to say left, right, and straight ahead in Thai) but all the doors were locked shut. Getting rather frustrated, we continued our walk north. Soon, I saw a sign that said “Hotel Chinatown.” Aha! I was positive this place was in the book. I checked our guide and found the hotel listed on the map. Now we knew where we were; great news, but the map also proved that were now standing in the middle of nowhere. Time to hire another tuk-tuk.

A view of Bangkok from the Chao Praya Express

We returned to the hotel for a quick Coke and crossed the street to Tha Phra Athit, the local canal dock for the Chao Praya River Express boats. For six baht each – about 15 cents – we caught the next express ferry heading south. We weren’t going anywhere in particular, just a little maritime joyride. The ferry was crowded with local commuters and a few farang tourists with their cameras and sunglasses. I wondered if we stood out as badly as the rest of them. Susanne and I managed to find a seat, so we got comfortable and enjoyed the ride down the canal. Despite the noise of the motor, Bangkok seemed so much more peaceful from the water’s perspective. Sampans and ferries came and went from one dock to the next, but as a whole the water traffic was light, especially compared to the street congestion just a few yards onshore. On the left I could see the Grand Palace in the distance, with Wat Pho’s chedis not too far above it. And to the right we caught our first glimpse of Wat Arun, perhaps the city’s most recognized landmark. It’s the tallest wat in Bangkok, and its increasingly thinning stupa reminded me of a solid stone Eiffel Tower. Unfortunately, Wat Arun was covered in scaffolding, so it wasn’t exactly the awesome site you might expect. But as the universal symbol of Bangkok, it served as yet another reminder that we indeed in the heart of southeast Asia.
We neared the southern end of the express ferry route, so I suggested we get off the boat and check out the Oriental Hotel. Along with Hong Kong’s Peninsula Hotel and the Raffles in Singapore, the Oriental is regarded as one of the finest hotels in Asia. Ever the aficionado of colonial-era hotels, I wanted to take a look. The hotel was awash in white – white walls, white staircases, white uniforms. It felt like an overexposed black and white photograph, or a scene from some Stanley Kubrick film. We sat for a while in the Author’s Cafe, formerly a favorite haunt of Graham Greene and other globetrotting writers of the past. The cafe, also completely white, shone brightly from numerous skylights on the ceiling. A large red and white staircase circled downward in two directions, not unlike something you might find in an antebellum southern mansion. We ordered tea and scones and ate while two young Thai men in (white) tuxedos played flute and guitar. To our dismay, they performed poor interpretations of western songs like “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” and “Yesterday” at a pace slow enough to put asleep even the most wired of standup comics. Some visitors might call this place heaven, but after a short time it began to feel like hell in whitewash. Longing for the noise of the city, we polished off our teas and departed, pausing long enough to take advantage of the sparkling clean serenity of the hotel restrooms.
It was early evening rush hour on the Chao Praya Express, but again we managed to find some seats. Susanne soon got up and stood along the side of the boat to take some pictures. I joined her eventually and admired the view as the wake of our boat crashed below me. We reached our dock and jumped off the boat as dozens of commuters and uniformed school kids crossed on and off the ferry. Somehow it was now past 5pm and I was thoroughly exhausted, so we headed to the room for a rest. Earlier we had talked about seeing a Thai kickboxing match that night but I bitterly opposed moving myself off the bed. After some successful cajoling on Susanne’s part, though, I agreed to go to a match.
Muay Thai, or Thai boxing, is the national pastime of Thailand. In Bangkok fights take place in either the Lumphini Boxing Stadium or the Ratchadamnoen Stadium, depending on what day of the week it is. Tonight, Thursday Night at the Fights would be at Ratchadamnoen. We caught a tuk-tuk near Khao San Road for the quick ride north up Ratchadamnoen Avenue to the boxing stadium. Several hundred Thais of all ages were hanging out in front of the arena, enjoying what appeared to be a festive tailgate party. We approached a ticket counter; I knew seats started around 150 baht per person, so I asked the woman at the counter, “Thaorai Baht?” – “How much?” I had gotten pretty good at understanding numbers in Thai, but with all of the crowd noise, I couldn’t decipher her response. Looking rather embarrassed that she couldn’t communicate with me, she stepped back and brought over her supervisor, who gazed at me, taking his index finger and pointing it upward. Isn’t that a rude gesture in Thailand?, I thought. But I looked up and over the ticket window I saw in large print the number 210. Oh, 210 baht. So I handed her our 420 baht – a total of ten dollars, give or take – and purchased our second class tickets for some seats upstairs.
Susanne and I climbed the concrete stairs to get to the upper deck. Inside we found an arena in the round, with bleacher seats for our balcony level and ringside chairs below us in the first class level. In the center of the arena was the ring itself, about 30 feet square. Two tiny, thin boxers were in the ring, kneeling on the mat in prayer while their trainers prayed with them from their respective corners. In the first class seats sat a well dressed audience, talking among themselves and laughing. But in second class, it was an entirely different story: hundreds of men of all ages were standing around, waving their hands and fingers while shouting out numbers at the top of their lungs. The match would begin in under two minutes according to the clock, and people were placing their final bets. If Muay Thai was Thailand’s number one pastime, placing bets on Muay Thai probably held a close second. With all the commotion, I was reminded distinctly of commodities trading at the Chicago Mercantile exchange. The shouting, the hand signaling, even the cellular phones going off – the denizens of second class had business to do, and time was running out.
The first match began with a familiar “ding” of a bell. A quartet of two drummers, a flutist and a cymbalist hammered out a continuous tribal beat, making the fight all the more exotic. The two boxers circled each other slowly, punching and kicking when the opportunity revealed itself. Each swing or kick that connected with its target scored a certain number of points, and whoever had the highest total at the end of the match would be declared the winner.

Listen to the Sounds of Muay Thai!
(Requires RealAudio)
Gamblers shouting their bets
at Ratchadamnoen Stadium

Initially, the two fighters fought rather limply, so we paid more attention to our fellow audience members instead. I noticed that our balcony level was screened in with chicken wire, like the Thunderdome in the Mad Max film – was this for the boxer’s protection or ours? A large Thai man with an old knife scar wrapped across his face like a thin mustache shouted out bets during the breaks between each round. I could hear him yell, “Haa sip! Haa sip!” – “50 baht! 50 baht!” The bets would rise as the bell for the next round approached. With ten seconds before the bell, the man hollered, “Gao sip, gao sip! Roi Roi! Roi saam sip!” – “90, 90! 100, 100! 130!!!” The bell rang, the match resumed, and our scar-faced neighbor pulled out his cell phone in an apparent attempt to check voice mail. There were also a few Thai women who took part in arranging bets, sometimes more vigorously than men. In the audience I could only count a handful of westerners, yet none of the Thais seemed to pay attention to our presence. I know that may sound like an odd comment, since clearly no one would care if a couple of Thai tourists attended a boxing match in Vegas. But I considered my frame of reference: if this match had taken place in India, we would have been hounded constantly. Here, though, we were just another face in the crowd, and I took much comfort in that fact.
My gaze returned to the fight, and suddenly, Wham! One fighter leveled a stunning right foot kick into the jaw of his opponent. Sweat and blood sprayed across the mat as this poor fellow fell flat on his back, knocked out cold. His trainer tried to revive him as the audience screamed and booed. Large wads of baht were exchanged between the winners and losers. After a minute or two the trainers pulled a stretcher into the ring and carried away the downed unconscious fighter in abject defeat.
The next fight was more evenly matched, lasting a full five rounds until one boxer won in an 11-7 decision. Once again, thick handfuls of 100, 500 and even 1000 baht notes were exchanged throughout the audience. The third match started soon after 8pm. It didn’t seem to be much of a fight, so we returned to the hotel by tuk-tuk halfway through the third round. Nothing like an evening of Muay Thai to wrap up a busy day in Bangkok.

November 5, 1997

The Trans-Pacific Commute

Filed under: Thailand — Andy Carvin @ 2:10 pm

Another wasted day at the office. It’s become an annual ritual of mine, going to work with my 25-pound backpack in tow, whittling away the hours until catching a flight to some faraway place. This year, Susanne and I were going to Southeast Asia, and our flight to Bangkok was to depart from New York at 9pm. We had to get to New York from Washington, of course, so after sitting at work for six hours, thinking of Asia and pondering the possible adventures ahead, I slipped out at 3pm to meet Susanne at Washington National for the short flight to JFK. The hour hop to New York passed quickly, but it was only the first of over 24 hours of continuous travel time.
Getting to Bangkok ain’t easy. Our Cathay Pacific flight would travel from New York to Vancouver in five hours, refuel for 90 minutes, and then continue on to Hong Kong – another 14 hours give or take, depending on the head winds. We’d then have another hour to spare before launching skyward again for the 2 1/2 hour flight to Bangkok. Do the math: 1+5+14+2.5 hours + layovers adds up to one long, cranky, sleepless commute.
The Cathay 747 was comfy enough – I even had the fortune of an empty seat to my right. But for whatever reason, perhaps punishment for past sins or good old fashion travel jitters, I couldn’t fall asleep. Oh, for a few minutes here and there I’d nod off, but for all intents and purposes I spent the entire transpacific pond hop tossing and turning in my thin Economy Class seat. But hey, what do I care, right? I’m going to Thailand! I’m going to Laos! I’m going to Vietnam! – I think. Actual itineraries aside, excitement and anticipation pre-empted any real sleep on that particular flight. I had even done my best to stay up as late as possible, til 8am Washington DC time the next day, just to begin my sleep patterns on Bangkok time (exactly 12 hours ahead of DC). No dice. Awake like a longhaul trucker on crank. So I did my best to lay back, close my eyes and listen to La Boheme on the inflight audio system. And I waited for 14 hours.
5am Bangkok time, Wednesday morning, somewhere between Russian Kamchatka and the islands of Japan. Susanne was now awake and the cabin crew was serving the passengers a breakfast choice of omelets or beef congee – ground meat in boiled rice porridge. Earlier on the New York to Vancouver flight, I thought about how we were to spend over three weeks on Asian soil, I decided to begin the trip with an open-minded spirit. “Beef congee, please.” Bad idea. Cold hamburger scraps over grits. This time, I opted the easy way out and enjoyed cold omelet instead.
Around 7am, our plane descended from its airborne perch over the South China Sea into Hong Kong harbor. I could see the marvelous karst mountains that buffet the city as we approached the runway – my first in-person view of the Far East. This trip was Real now, with a capital R – time for vacation to begin. We had just spent 24 solid hours in the darkness of night, thanks to flying piggyback with the changing timezones. But now I could finally see what was ahead of me – a whole new chunk of Asian continent to explore.
Our flight was a few minutes late so our scheduled one-hour layover became a lot less leisurely than I had hoped. Nonetheless, we managed to make it to our Bangkok flight just in time. This 150 minute flight should have been a cake walk, but anticipation got the best of me as I counted every minute of the flight, viewing our progress on the in-flight map projection. Look! We’re over Vietnam. Look! We’re over Laos. Look! We’ve entered Thai airspace. I could see that Susanne didn’t need my play-by-play commentary, but I knew she was just as excited as I was. By 9:40am, we were on the ground in Bangkok.
Customs at Don Muang Airport was a breeze – ten minutes tops, half of which was spent walking down a hallway to the wrong immigration queue. We caught a taxi – a brand new Mercedes – that brought us to downtown Bangkok in about 30 minutes. We raced along a new expressway passing billboards for Intel Pentium chips, Motorola pagers and Kentucky Fried Chicken. I felt as if I were driving along I-4 through Orlando. Was this what modern Thailand was all about? 15 years of 10%+ economic growth per annum had made this nation into one of the Asian Tigers, but was this Tiger now as American as Tony the Tiger? And with the new economic realities of the recent Asian economic hangover – including the 40% devaluation of the Thai baht – was this trip to be a vacation in a land of financially depressed Western aspirations? Only time would tell.
Our taxi deposited us in front of the Peachy Guest House on Pra Athit Road, just east of the Chao Praya river’s Tha Pra Athit watertaxi stop in Bangkok’s Banglamphu District. The Lonely Planet guide, our perennial travel bible, had given the Peachy Guest House a peachy review, but upon inspection the hotel had all the ambiance of a rundown cannery row bar, with only a terminally bored hotelkeep manning the place. Thanks, but no thanks. We walked 30 feet up the road to the New Merry V Guesthouse. The rooms were by no means better than the Peachy Guesthouse (at $7 a night, how good could they be?) but the open air foyer was filled with travelers eating breakfast and planning their adventures as if they were visiting a Starbucks as part of their morning commute. New Merry V would be our new merry home for the next few days.
We knew from the start that today had to be a write-off. It was Wednesday, I hadn’t slept since Sunday night, so we were determined to take it slowly. We focused on administrative needs instead – namely, planning our itinerary for the next 21 days. Back in Washington, I had consulted with a Bangkok travel agent named Sasha over the Internet for well over a month, so we decided to pay him a visit and buy some airline tickets. We probably could have easily used one of the many travel agencies in Banglamphu, including one at the guesthouse, but we were eager to settle the issue of whether Sasha was an expat farang living in Bangkok or if he was a Thai who just happened to be named Sasha.
Sasha, it turns out, was a Thai Who Just Happened to be Named Sasha. His English was fluent and flawless, yet with a sharp Australian accent. Sasha had spent some time in Queensland, Australia, so he was no less easy to understand than any other Aussie. And so with the flick of a credit card and a quick signature, we signed for our purchase: an honest to goodness excursion to Cambodia.
Yes, Cambodia. Susanne and I had tossed about the idea of a visit to Phnom Penh and Angkor for about six months. Initially, it seemed like a grand idea – the UN-brokered peace process was on track, Pol Pot was on the run and almost in the hands of justice. But then almost overnight in early July, Cambodia’s slow but steady steps towards peace were derailed when Hun Sen, the second prime minister of Cambodia and former prime minister as appointed by Vietnam, overthrew first prime minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh in a violent coup d’etat. Phnom Penh was overrun with street-to-street gun battles, Ranariddh supporters were summarily executed, the airport nearly destroyed by shelling. Newly democratic Cambodia was again reduced to senseless anarchy.
Needless to say, the bloodshed of July shifted our minds towards Plan B: a short trip to Hanoi and Halong Bay, the beautiful karst mountain islands featured in the film Indochine. There was no way we’d go to Cambodia as long as the gun ruled the streets, but yet the dream of visiting the land of Angkor never drifted far from our hearts. Today, Cambodia is still in the hands of Hun Sen and his supporters. Yet the violence had passed and Phnom Penh had returned to normal – exactly what “normal” meant, I wasn’t entirely sure. Only the tourists were staying away now. I decided to correspond with Phnom Penh residents by email, and they assured me that normality had returned to day-to-day life. Though we still opposed the Hun Sen regime, Susanne and I concluded that this was a chance to visit a nation in transition. Whether this transition was from bad to worse remained to be seen, for it certainly wasn’t unprecedented in recent Cambodian history. But we decided that here was an opportunity we couldn’t let slip by. Common sense and the US State Department Travelers’ Advisory be damned, we were ready to tread the high wire that separated adventure from insanity.
After leaving Sasha’s office, we returned to the guesthouse to shower and relax. We soon discovered that our new residence lacked hot water, but after nearly 48 hours in the same clothes, even a cold shower was blessed relief. We grabbed dinner at a restaurant along the Chao Praya river, not too far from the guesthouse. Susanne and I ate pad thai and green curry chicken as motorized sampans and ferries left their wakes crashing below our riverside table. The curry was quite delicious, but the pad thai might have been a mistake – I forgot pad thai had uncooked sprouts in it. We compensated with extra doses of Pepto Bismol before going to bed.

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