Bangkok - Our Trip Comes to an End
Sep 26, 2007
I watch as a truck leaves an intersection, gaining speed, passing bicycles and motorcycles. I watch it through the train window as we rattle our way alongside, then pass. There is something especially relaxing about watching the world pass by the train windows, offering blurred glimpses of life outside. A child playing in a doorway. A man walking home through a muddy rice field at the end of the day. A lone dog wandering through a palm plantation, perhaps in search of little creatures to chase and eat. I watch in silence and absorb as much as I can.
There is sadness in my watching, a sense of things winding down. This is our last train journey, our last chance to watch the blur of landscape and life pass by the window as we move to another place, another city. Ahead is Bangkok, behind us are all the cities and towns and people we have met in the past year. It is a humbling feeling. I sit, observe, and let the hours pass.
As darkness falls, the first hints of the city appear: clusters of light, long lines of cars strung along highways like the beads of an endless necklace, and the tall buildings of the city. My usual feeling of anxiety upon arriving in a new city is replaced, this time, by a feeling of excitement. Skyscrapers poke skyward with glittering yellow light and the roads are busy, filled with human life. I realize I’ve missed the city.
The train slows to a stop and we peer out into the milling crowd to figure out where we are. It has been the same with every trip we’ve taken, whether via train or bus: we near our destination and the stop-start at each station makes me wonder nervously whether we’ve just missed our stop. You’d think I’d have learned by now to sit back, relax, and wait: somehow, we will know when our stop has come.
The conductor comes by and touches my arm gently, smiles, and points to the door. The next stop is ours.
We half-stumble from the train, pulling our packs behind us. The station is bright and – at least compared to the Indian train stations we recall so well –so clean and orderly. I brace myself for a flurry of taxi touts to follow us, trailing a litany of “where are you going?” and “come with me sir!” It doesn’t happen. We see a sign for the Thai tourist office and ask where the subway station is. A polite man tells us which door to use and smiles as we leave. Out the door, down the stairs, into the subway: we aren’t hassled once. I guess I’ve forgotten how different it is in Bangkok!
The subway, like the train station, is incredibly clean and orderly. It is like I’m in Singapore again, except the prices aren’t so high. Within minutes, we emerge into the sleazy Sukhimvit Road where aging Western men walk with barely teen aged girls, “massage” parlours call out to passers-by, and prostitutes are as common as tourist restaurants. Not the most glamorous part of town, to be certain, but it’s the area where we stayed a year ago and where we’ve been told there is a good guesthouse.
Our hotel – Suk11 – turns out to be an amazing and very unique place. The hallways are decorated like alleyways in old Bangkok: we teeter down the hall along boards balanced as if to protect our shoes from the rain, the walls are brick, and what look like power lines run haphazardly from place to place. There is an old trishaw outside our room and the hallways have a dimly lit, mysterious feeling. The plaster walls are covered in graffiti from travelers, each proclaiming their love of the place, of Bangkok, and their promises to return. We quickly notice the Canadian quirk that we’ve noted before: whenever a Canadian traveler writes on the wall, they add a sketch of the flag, the name “CANADA” declared in capitals beside their names, or both: more than any other country, Canadians feel a need to declare their country of origin.
Laura is tired, so decides to have a rest in our room. I, on the other hand, am hungry. I venture out to the guesthouse restaurant which turns out to be expensive, unremarkable, and takes ages to arrive. Perhaps I’m just irritable after a long journey. Afterward, I decide to take a short walk to explore and learn quickly that its very different to walk along Sukhimvit road when you’re male and alone: I have pamphlets for strip bars and erotic massage parlours thrust into my hands, then a prostitute steps out of a bar, blocking my path and cooing “hey baby, need a date tonight?” Her friends sit at a nearby table and giggle. One makes kissing noises. I dodge past, weaving out onto the road to avoid her approach. Yes, it is very different here without Laura by my side! I walk back past several overweight Western men with Thai girls that look barely 16 (and are probably much younger), each couple on their way to one of the fancy hotels in the area.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that Bangkok looks so familiar; we were here only a year ago, after all. Yet it seems like we never left: everything seems precisely as we left it. How could everything be the same when we have traveled so far and seen so many things? At first, I feel puzzled and bewildered without really knowing why. Then, slowly and with sadness, I begin to see how small and brief our travels have really been. Something so important to us – this trip has been our entire world for a year – hasn’t changed anyone or anything except, perhaps, ourselves. Bangkok hasn’t changed nor has anywhere else. We have simply completed a circle.
Our room is comfortable and quiet, a refuge from the street noise and seedy chaos outside. There are two single beds pushed together, one rock-hard and one cushy-soft: I realize I haven’t fully adapted to non-monastery beds when I find I sleep perfectly on the mattress that has about as much padding as the floor. Laura, on the other hand, is very happy on her mattress of very non-monastic cushiness. The monks would be proud of me …
There are some sights in Bangkok we’ve wanted to see again: the Golden Palace, the reclining Buddha, and Chinatown. On our first day, we take the sky train to the Siam mall where we pick up a city map and Laura returns to the toast stall in the food court that she loved so much when we visited a year ago. Peanut butter and toast cut in little squares, eaten with a toothpick. She loves it.
Next we take the train to the Chao Phraya river, then a taxi boat up the river to the complex that houses the reclining Buddha. Everything is exactly as we remember it, except quieter, less crowded, and less dirty. At the same time, the city appears just a little less picturesque and exotic, a bit less exciting to photograph. But what it has lost in strangeness, it has gained in familiarity: as we walk the streets, it feels like a kind of nostalgic homecoming.
The Reclining Buddha is just as impressive as when we first saw it and the grounds just as peaceful. A group of Thai schoolchildren chatter and play in a courtyard; we watch as their teacher whistles and they scurry into a silent line before us, each putting a hand on the shoulder of the child in front of them. I watch and smile with a vague recollection of similar motions when I was young.
I take some photos, aware that I’m taking the same shots that I took a year ago except with a different camera. Then we have a late lunch at some nearby food stalls where I recall a year ago trying to muster the courage to order something – and failing. As we eat our noodles and grilled meat, I wonder if there is anything cooked in Thailand that doesn’t taste wonderful. I doubt it.
The day passes quickly and the heat doesn’t help our endurance. The sky threatens rain but doesn’t deliver. It is difficult to explore for long without getting tired and eventually we retreat to our guesthouse.
We return in the evening to a restaurant I noticed earlier in the day at the Siam Centre mall – a highly reviewed Thai place called “Manna”. I’ve been looking forward to eating at some nice restaurants before returning home. As our first, “Manna” is good but not fantastic. Perhaps a little toned down for the tourists, despite there being mostly Thai families seated around us? Having splurged on dinner, we figure to hell with the budget, let’s go for a movie! Up to the multiplex on the mall’s top level we go, picking a movie pretty much at random. Strange there are no prices posted anywhere. I approach the counter, state our choice, and I’m asked for 640 Baht. 640 Baht!?!?!? That’s about $20 each! Yikes! I suppose we should have expected as much in a mall with a Porche, Masarati, and Lamborghini dealership on the first floor … so we opt, humbled by common sense and a strained bank account, for dessert in the food court instead. Tiramisu for Laura and mango with sticky rice for me which is, I figure, much better than the movie anyway. It is only later that we learn that the movie theatre boasts, amongst other extravagances, reclining massage chairs.
The following day, after breakfast at our guest house, we head out to the Grand Palace. It was, at one point, the home of the King and his court as well as the administrative seat of government. Now the complex houses the temple of the emerald Buddha as well as the palace itself, only part of which tourists are allowed to see. I am looking forward to both again.
By the time we get there, Laura is starting to feel the effect of the heat and humidity. We wander slowly around the complex, taking time for rest stops along the way. Laura has a headache and is hungry and somehow the place feels less magical to me with a year of traveling behind us. Perhaps it is the crowds or the scaffolding that surrounds some of the more majestic temples as they are refurbished. I wander through the complex as if transported into a distant wonderful memory, hesitant to examine it too carefully in case it disappears. It is best to leave it behind. I remember a restaurant that looked good from our exploring the day before and we make that our destination. Refueled, we walk toward Chinatown – not so much to explore as to get to a boat jetty not temporary closed due to the royal barge ceremony practice going on nearby. We find a boat and stop only briefly to get some snacks before retreating to our hotel and rest.
I’m restless though, and not as tired as Laura: I decide to go exploring. I take the sky train to a nearby stop, then branch off down a road where our guidebook shows lots of restaurants. Maybe I could surprise Laura with a nice dinner later in the evening. I walk and walk, passing Italian and French restaurants, steakhouses ... but nothing Thai. I’m just about to turn around when I realize I’ve walked to Lumphini park, a 140 acre green space in the centre of Bangkok and named after Lumbini, Buddha’s birthplace in Nepal (in case it sounds familiar, we were there ... though the park looks a lot different from the dusty little town so far away). The sun hangs low in the sky as joggers run past me in the late-afternoon light. The sky threatens rain. Despite wanting to walk around the lake and enjoy the quiet of this place, I depart into the traffic noise and bustle of the sidewalk. Soon, I’ve left the park behind.
Laura is well-rested when I return to our room. We relax awhile – I’m tired after having walked about 5km – before finding our way to a well-reviewed restaurant for dinner. Tables line the streets as we leave the bustling Saladaeng area and walk tentatively into the residential darkness beyond. There are still people everywhere and traffic and the noise of the city, but it seems to be a strangely remote place for a restaurant. Sure enough, we find it. But after a year of traveling, we really don’t have clothes suitable for a nice restaurant. This place seems nice – REALLY nice – and there’s something about walking into a fancy restaurant with hiking boots, baggy pants, and needing a haircut that makes me feel less than comfortable. I try to look confident as I gaze across at the white tables, exposed beams, and floor to ceiling windows: this place could be home in Yaletown, except I’d have dressed for it. I sit, curl my hiking boots under my seat (as if that would hide them) and focus on my date. After all, the Frommer’s review claims Eat Me is a “good, quiet place to get downright metaphysical with that special someone”. Now that’s more pressure than I can handle at the moment, especially after I realize that each entree is close to our daily budget, my hiking boots are feeling heavier by the moment, and my shirt looks even more wrinkled than I thought it was. For a few moments, I feel like a teenager who takes his date to a fancy restaurant and realizes he doesn’t have enough money. Ridiculous, I tell myself. To hell with the budget!
The meal is good, though not fantastic. It’s western, not Thai food as I expected, but is tasty enough. I just can’t stop feeling self-conscious of my appearance. It is not hard to feel under-dressed in Bangkok where there is as much wealth as there is poverty and prostitution.
We return to our room to relax and end another day, one of the last in our trip.
The next day, September 22nd, we succumb to the shopping impulse. I take Laura to MBK mall where the air is filled with the plastic smell of new shoes. I wander upstairs and end up buying a cell phone, thus ending my research into the matter. I sort of like the idea of having a cell phone with Thai characters on the keys. Next a handicraft store and some lunch before heading back to our hotel. I look skyward: should I go to Chinatown as I’d planned? Laura is content to rest in the guesthouse but should I go? I decide against it: it looks like it’s about to pour rain.
Its late afternoon before Laura realizes that it’s Saturday and that we’d planned to spend the day at the famous Chatuchak market. We’d completely missed it! Thankfully, it will be open tomorrow as well. Instead, we take the subway to the night market. It’s the same old things over and over again in each stall and we soon tire of it. We stop for a drink and a snack at a restaurant and marvel at the crowds, the warm air, and the nearby bar filled with hundreds of tables. To think that this runs every night! At home, we couldn’t make something like this happen more than once a year, and even then people would complain about the noise and crowds.
We arrive at Chatuchak Market after breakfast on Sunday. The place is, as we’d heard, absolutely huge: over 9000 separate stalls selling just about everything on earth. Is there anything that is not here?! Dishes, plastic flowers, antique books, t-shirts, rabbits and squirrels dressed up in suits (yes, you read that right), original art, and anything else that you might imagine. I ponder over a brass wok – seems to be a great price, but brass!!?? I’ve never heard of brass cookware before – and decide against it. Instead, I opt for the nonsensical, vaguely English-language t-shirts sold around the market with slogans like “Devil to kill sombody to do away with a withness” and “Dog look at airplane”. There’s something about a t-shirt that makes no sense and has spelling mistakes that is just, well, great. Call me weird. Laura finds some jewellery she likes and we gradually feel our energy start to fade. The heat builds as morning becomes afternoon. After lunch and a final walk around, we decide we’ve had enough. Just one stop at a food stall selling fantastic spiced beef and sticky rice before we go. Mmmmm. Thai people really understand how to make good food!
Dinner is at a restaurant called Cabbages and Condoms – so named because its founder wants to make condoms as commonplace and accepted as cabbages – which in addition to being one of the top-rated Thai restaurants in Bangkok, raises money for birth control and other community-based programs. Even better, the food is very good (though unfortunately not too spicy). The restaurant gives out condoms instead of mints after dinner, and slogans such as “our food is guaranteed not to cause pregnancy” hang on the walls (I won’t mention some of the items on sale in the gift shop!). We leave pleased with our meal and even more because we supported an organization that seems to be having a positive impact on poor communities in Thailand. Unlike many developing nations, Thailand’s population growth is reasonably low – a fact that will allow it continued success where other nations may struggle.
We decide to end our evening with a movie, this time at a less expensive theatre. We choose a Jodie Foster movie, The Brave One. The screen flickers, the lights dim, and the music starts ... and everyone rises to their feet. I nudge Laura and we, too, stand as slightly blurry images of the king float across the screen while scratchy regal-sounding music blares. This is one of the reasons I wanted to see a movie in Thailand: to experience for myself the tribute to the king that is played at the beginning while the audience stands in silent reverence. The tribute itself is a little amateurish – grainy photos and crackling music – which is strange given how revered the king is. Oh well ... I’ve experienced it now ... so on with the movie!
Which, it turns out, is incredibly disturbing. I won’t go into the story, except that the explicit violence and the premise that revenge is the only way justice is possible leave us shell-shocked. Were we used to these sort of movies before we left home? Is that violence and anger “normal”? We leave the theatre disturbed, not only by the message of the movie, but for the reminder of the world we are about to re-enter. Violence, craving for revenge and retribution, battering the senses and emotions: it suddenly strikes me that these are features of the culture I am about to re-enter. Was there a time that that didn’t bother me?
We both have nightmares that night and talk about that movie over and over. It lingers with us for days.
I’ve wanted to explore Chinatown for a few days now. Perhaps I can find some interesting alleyways or strange buildings to photograph. After breakfast, we’re off to the sky train and then on a boat up the river to explore.
Our map has “interesting alleyways” marked in blue. We wander in that direction and, after some backtracking and a pause to watch some men cutting branches over the electrical wires (letting them fall and bounce to the ground while a crowd watches cautiously), we find a narrow crowded alleyway. Motor scooters whiz past us with barely room for their handlebars. Food stalls sell mysterious grilled things. But mostly, it was store after store of plastic: plastic shoes and lunch boxes in neon colours, balloons and sparkles, Hello Kitty and Spongebob Squarepants, toxic yellow and pink and blue and everything – you can be certain – would break in about 12 minutes. The air smells like a newly unwrapped air mattress and I quickly realize I’m not going to get any interesting photos. Not here.
Yet we persevere. Past shops with unrecognizable creatures preserved in the window (did those strange animals once exist or are they the product of an ancient crazed taxidermist?). There are nuts spread along the sidewalk to dry in the sun. Vats of dried mushrooms send their musky medicinal scent into the street. Brightly coloured gelatinous cakes are wrapped in plastic beside bunches of artificial flowers. We find a temple and enter tentatively. Incense drifts lazily into the air as people kneel, pray, leave an offering, and depart only to be replaced immediately by another. It is crowded and we don’t stay long. It is not a place for tourists.
I’ve mostly given up on the prospect of interesting photos. This is not a place of antique alleyways and strange shops. It is where people shop for cheap food and trinkets and plastic dollar-store things. We head back. It is then that we recognize the shark fins: huge two and three-foot ones hanging in shop fronts, little ones displayed in windows, restaurants all around us proudly displaying their big dried fins. Despite shark fin soup supposedly being a rare delicacy, it is clearly a very popular and widely consumed item here: we pass at least five shops in a single block that are offering it. None of them look particularly fancy. Not long ago in one of our guesthouses with a television, we saw a documentary that showed sharks being caught off the coast of Australia, their fins being chopped off, then being dumped back overboard to bleed to death without the ability to swim. “Finning,” as they call it, is lucrative business in SE Asia. As we pass dried fins in shop after shop, I can see why. We are saddened and angered by it. I stop to take a photo so we can share the vision with you.
If you would like more information, check out
Shark Fin Soup.
And please don’t go to any restaurants that serve the stuff!
We leave Chinatown with a huge bag of cinnamon sticks and star anise from one of the dusty shops in a small alleyway. The woman wants to sell me a kilo of cinnamon (what can you do with a KILO of cinnamon, for god’s sake?) but settles with filling a bag with about three big handfuls. For more cinnamon and star anise than I’ll ever use in my lifetime, it cost me just under two dollars. Makes you realize the mark-up on spices at home!!
We finish the afternoon at the very posh Siam mall where I resignedly buy plastic containers of curry paste. I’d hoped to find some more authentic stuff in the market that I’d be able to bring home, but ultimately decide that a big gloopy bag of non-descript smelly paste in a probably leaky plastic bag wouldn’t be the best thing to put in my luggage.
I console myself with a surprise that Laura discovers in the mall’s huge food court: Thai pancakes!! I thought I’d seen the last of them, but I buy a big bag of the ultra-sweet little meringue coconuty things and eat them all. Maybe not as tasty as they were in the south, but I can’t complain. Next is the nearby Pontip computer centre – a massive conglomeration of discount, knock-off, bootleg, and just plain cheap computer stuff. About five stories of it. Basically guy paradise and girl hell. Laura notices a few women wandering the place, obviously sizing up the men who are, in turn, sizing up the various techy gadgets. Could this be where women go to find single men with disposable income?!?
In the evening, we enjoy our best Bangkok meal to date at Ban Chiang. The food is wonderful, traditional Thai fare enjoyed in an old house converted into a restaurant and surrounded by lush gardens. This is the food I’d been hoping to find in Bangkok: very spicy and very flavourful. My dessert of mango and sticky rice is the best I’ve ever tasted. We return to our guesthouse very full and tired from a long day.
We wake the next morning all too aware of its significance: it is the last day of our trip. What do you do to wrap up a year of travel, make the most of the time – moments really – that is left, and somehow make the day feel as significant as it is?
I started with a haircut.
It is a good haircut, mind you. Expensive. Partway through, the stylist starts shaking, mutters something, then disappears. Five minutes later, a different woman appears and continues cutting my hair. “She have attack,” I’m told. My concerned queries are waved off as unimportant. “Is she ok?” I ask worriedly. I don’t get an answer that gives me much reassurance. I do, however, end up with a reasonably good haircut.
In the same mall as the hair dresser, we’ve been told, is a fantastic grocery store. Well, I’m not one to argue about food, so soon we find ourselves wandering in what looks like a high-end Western grocery store. Nothing really very fantastic, to be honest, but it does sell French bread, hummus, and good cheese. Just the thing for a picnic!
So we trundle off with our goodies toward Lumphini park where we settle onto a sunny patch of grass by the lake, spooning dollops of hummus and slicing awkward chunks of cheese with our Swiss Army knife. We people-watch and enjoy the sun and, each in our own worlds of melancholy, contemplate the end of traveling.
We decide to walk back to our hotel along what our map tells us is a bike path. And, after doubling back and puzzling over the map more than once, we do indeed locate the fabled route: its free of motorcycles and cars, gives a pleasant view of the surrounding neighborhoods from its raised walkway, and makes for a very pleasant – though hot – walk. Unfortunately, it is completely empty except for us. It seems that bike paths having quite caught on in Bangkok.
On the long walk back to our hotel, we stop at the gift shop of the Cabbages and Condoms restaurant and buy two beautiful silk blankets that we’d been admiring. One of them will make a nice Christmas present for Matt’s mom. Then back to our guesthouse for a much-needed rest. We’re hot and tired from a day of walking.
For our last dinner, we decide to return to Ban Chiang. Our meal is good, though perhaps not quite as good as the evening before. Nevertheless, it’s our last dinner in Thailand. Our last evening. The ending of a year has come. We pack our bags for the last time, organize our gifts, print a list of the things we’ve bought for customs. Bills are settled and taxis arranged. It all has suddenly come to an end. It feels too unreal to feel sadness. We sleep, fitfully, and think about the day to come.
Back in Bangkok... it feels good to be back and quite frankly I am glad to be off the beach. I never thought I would say it, but I am officially "beached out". It was great while it lasted, but I am ready for some urban chaos. And I have come to right place.
Bangkok is everything I remember: honking cars, tons of people, great sky train, rickety river taxi boats, excellent food and lots and lots of air-conditioned malls. I am sweating all the time and I am getting really tired of that, but fortunately we have found a fantastic guest house that is very reasonably priced and has a/c. The place is made to look like an old thai alleyway inside (complete with power lines and gravel pathways). It is quite remarkable and we really enjoy our stay. We start out each morning with the complimentary breakfast of fresh fruit, toast and tea. We befriend an American man and run into two people that Matt did his monastery retreat with, so we don't feel lonely.
Our days are spent checking out the sights we saw when we were first here over a year ago. The reclining Buddha is as huge and magical as I remember. This time I am able to take more of it in and it is a fitting place at which to round out our trip. We also do some last minute shopping and find a very interesting restaurant and gift shop run by an organization that has done incredible work on population control. The restaurant is called Cabbages and Condoms and part of the proceeds from our meal go towards their community programs. The gift shop has some great locally-made products that support rural artisans and it makes for an overall feel-good experience (pardon the pun). Check it out: http://www.pda.or.th/eng/media.asp
As our week winds to a close I can't help but find myself getting more and more excited about returning home. The end is here. I am ready to go. And, the fact that we are flying First Class doesn't hurt either.
Most expensive day: $438 CDN on September 22nd, 2007 (cellphone, souvenir shopping, and a nice dinner in Bangkok).
Least expensive day: $25 CDN on September 30th, 2006 (the day before we left Thailand for Cambodia).
Average Cost/Day: $75 CDN.
Laura: 1) Elephant Nature Park - those beasts were absolutely incredible and Lek (the woman who started it) is a saint. 2) Ko Phi Phi was a highlight for me as I so needed a place to chill out and one day just ran into another and it was blissfully laid back. 3) Railay - the Diamond Cave Resort was such a treat for us!
Matt: 1) Suan Mokh - spending eleven days in this beautiful, sparse place to focus on my own thoughts was a challenging, often intense, but very worthwhile experience. 2) Cooking classes in Chiang Mai - learning to cook Thai food for almost a week was fantastic 3) Chumphon - Just a quiet little town with not a lot to do and most tourists pass through without a blink. It was the people that made it special: kind, welcoming, and friendly. Sadly, I found it harder and harder to find this sort of traditional Thai welcome in our travels ... and I blame that on the obnoxious tourists, not the Thai people. Lastly, I will include the dining room of our guest house on Haad Tien on Ko Pha-Ngan: I never opened a menu ... instead the owner quietly offered me a dish she had in mind, sometimes with ingredients that falang don't usually like. Always it was wonderful ... and for her gracious kindness and wonderful food, I will always remember her open air dining room with fondness.
1.) Be clear about what you want to see and do in Thailand. The beaches are great, but they are not very culturally interesting. (Laura)
2.) If you have the opportunity and inclination, a meditation retreat is an experience that can change your view of the world and yourself. (Matt)
3.) Go to the Elephant Nature Park - it is by far the coolest thing I did in Thailand (and right up there as one of the highlights of our whole trip) (Laura)
4.) Just about everything you can eat in Thailand tastes fantastic. Try it all.(Matt)
5.) Check out the less touristy places and we found the people to very friendly and the food much more delicious than in the tourist resorts.(Laura)
6.) Ask for food "thai style" if you're brave and want the full chili experience. SOMETIMES they'll truly make it like the locals eat it ... if you're lucky. (Matt)
7.) Take advantage of eating all the fresh fruit and the fruit shakes - you will miss them when you leave. (Laura)
8.) The south has been overrun with tourists and, in my view, is mostly lost to resorts, partying Westerners, and beachbums. If you want to experience Thai culture, you'll have to head away from the beaches and (surprise) actually talk to locals. (Matt)
9.) Go to Ko Phi Phi and stay in a bungalow and swing on a hammock (just be sure to know the way to the Tsunami Evacuation Route!) (Laura)
10.) Eat in the local market and try something new. (Matt)
11.) Practice eating spicy food before you arrive in Thailand. The food is AWESOME but it is spicy! (Laura)
12.) Beer is the only way to kill spice ... so always order a big one. (Matt)