Most of the adults in this town work in the many area factories. What a better treat then to be delivered to those factories, by law far from the main highway roads, via colorful tour buses with strobe lights and blasting music? Huge “disco” buses, often covered in unlicensed Western cartoon and comic book characters, deliver hundreds of factory workers to and fro on a daily basis. The MTA should try this.
Aloha, Mr. An, the Wangnoi volunteers’ designated tuk-tuk driver. What is a tuk-tuk? Imagine boarding an antiquated bumper car at a carnival, one with an extended but still miniature cab. Now tear that sputtering piece of machinery to a main road and use it as your everyday transport. Riding in the tuk-tuk is enjoyable to me: the noises, the smells, the exhaust in my hair. Aaah.
This is a teacher/administrator at the school I’m volunteering at. Though her English isn’t the greatest, she has strenuously, yet effectively, communicated small talk and many occasions. Everyday at lunch I sense her taking note of what I am eating. There is nothing vegan served at the school so I began bringing my own PB&Js. Any awkwardness my American sandwich provokes is far more tolerable then eating plain white rice for lunch.
It is hard to see in the haziness of this picture but in my wandering around the roads here yesterday, I discovered the construction of an interesting roadside attraction. The kind I’ve been known to travel far for (e.g. muffler men, the world’s largest ball of yarn, etc) back in the States. A huge Buddhist monk, still under construction. I attempted to take some closer shots of it but wild stray dogs started barking and running towards me. All the stray dogs here scare the heck out of me. They’re not like the canines back home. They’re unpredictable, often vicious and, I think, all mentally retarded.
This is Line and Sita, two of the other volunteers staying here at Wangnoi. They are freshly graduated from high school in Denmark. In Denmark, high school includes the first 2 years of college so they’re a bit older than you’d expect. They are smart and resourceful and will do well out there traveling independently after their teaching stint is over.
This is Julie, the other American here at the homestay. She’s a sweet girl from Boston, 19 years old to the bone, whose travels abroad delivered a Thai boyfriend to her lap. She was also my co-teacher at the school.
Mr. Kai (translates to Mr. Chicken) is the program’s designated driver and semi-tour guide. Most of the time I spent with him was in his car, maneuvering to some Bangkok tourist attraction or another. Through rush-hour traffic in Bangkok, the chaotically disorganized highway interchanges and the curving a swerving of auto, motorcycle, bus, sidecar, vendor cart and tuk-tuk, Mr. Kai was the lone driver who displayed a bit of New York attitude. The only car horn I’ve heard sound here in Thailand.
Jaeb, my host sister here at Wangnoi, was the most consistent Thai in my life during these first two weeks. She took good care of me while I stayed in her home. Tried vegetarian cooking for the first time because of me. Our communication was strained as her English was as good as my Thai.
Thong is Jaeb’s younger sister and giggles more than any person I’ve ever met. It became our communicative form. In the morning, when I wandered around the kitchen at the crack of dawn like a cockroach, we’d laugh a hello, how are you?. Our other encounters were usually food-related, involving my grandiose spectacle of thanks for hot plates of jai food, which I embellished to make her laugh. A more refreshing form of small talk.
I managed to snap a picture of Sukanya, the manager of the volunteer program who taught me so much last week, just moments before my departing Wangnoi. Also pictured is her legacy, a bag of vegan foods and goodies she left for me a few days back. Oodles of dry noodles, soy and mushroom paste condiments, bags of chili crouton and a flyer of the health benefits of vegetarianism which listed the extensive number of Nobel winners, influential scientists, geniuses and wizards who chose a vegetarian lifestyle. She also stocked the placed with plenty of the Chinese Thai sweet buns (tarot root or pineapple in the middle) that I told her I loved so much. It feels nice to know I made as favorable an impression on her as she me. For a vegan, food accommodation is a high compliment!
Good bye, Wangnoi!
The first grade boys get a bit zany as the morning progresses. Experimenting with different means of grabbing their waning attention, I have found they love to be photographed… that the mere act of taking out my camera congregates them in a excited but orderly line in front of me. After which, they’re calm for the next 10 minutes or so. Below are the resulting images.
Disturbingly, a few of the boys think that they are all thug-life and flash gang symbols and guns with their hands. (The new version of cops & robbers?) But most of them are far more interested in making devil horns behind the heads of unsuspecting photo subjects. The kid-finger devil horn is different in Thailand. See the last image for an example.
I’ll be teaching at Wat Kanham School, in the Uthai district, all week. Like the name implies, the school is on the grounds of a Buddhist monastery. It is also located next to a factory where most of the students’ parents work. Without the Buddhist monastery providing space and resources and the close proximity of the factory, these students would not be getting an education at all.
Each day I am placed in classroom based on need of English instruction. Monday was 1st graders in the morning and 6th graders in the afternoon. Tuesday was 1st graders in the morning again and 2nd graders in the afternoon. All of the students know the American alphabet well, as did the village children in Bangsai. This seems to be basic knowledge. However, it is more like a song they have memorized, 26 notes in a sequence. Given how different Thai language is spoken and written in comparison with our language, teaching English without also knowing Thai is a tremendous challenge… not to mention the obstacle of classroom management. But the students in Uthai are very much like the students in New York. Some you can shoot a look at and they’ll take their seat and zip their lip; and some require repeated and more extensive guidance.
The mornings at school are grueling, with almost 3 hours of English instruction and no Thai-speaking teacher in sight. This is way too much time to spend in one sitting, especially for the 1st graders. I break up the time with stretches, breathing exercises, drawing and song but, still… after 2 hours many of them are running amok around the school’s grounds. Their rebellion against the unreasonable chunk of time they’re asked to sit and learn quite normal and natural. They’re 6 year olds! The afternoons are much more peaceful. After the hour break for lunch and recess, they attend ceremonies at the monastery for about 30-60 minutes. That leaves only an hour or 90 minutes of teach time before the tuk-tuk brings us back to Wangnoi. Afternoons are also spent with the older children who are far less distractable.
Yesterday, I came to school bearing gifts. Promotional pencils from my former workplace, United Jewish Communities. The pencils were a huge hit, both with the teachers and the students. After using the pencils to help keep order in my 1st room class in the morning, word got out by lunch that I had a sack with me that was nowhere near empty. Hoards of students tracked me down at lunch to get themselves a Blueknot pencil. It amazed me how happy the simple gift made them. Look for signs of the pencils in many of the pictures below.
According to Wiki, Bangkok’s Chatuchak Weekend market is the largest market in the world. That certainly seemed to be the case. I only perused a small portion of its 15,000 stalls and was completely overwhelmed. It is estimated that between 2-300,000 people visit the market each day. If you wanted to buy a mogwai, this is where you’d find him. In fact, Chatuchak Market sells many illegal animals, including some that are endangered.
Section 5 of the market contained an enormous selection of vendors selling old Levi’s and Wranglers, cowboy button-downs, hats, boots and belt buckles, vintage t-shirts and old school sneakers. These were the stalls that received much of my attention. Prices are negotiable but not as dirt cheap as I expected.
The vendors are kindly aggressive. The seller pictured here on the left scoured his space for jeans that would fit me as I tried them on under an ugly long skirt. This made us lifelong friends in his eyes and he wanted many pictures taken to remember the experience. Many vendors were straight-up American style hipsters with the attitude to match. Sex Pistols and Guns ‘N Roses blared from many stalls.
Part of the market, including many food stalls, were outdoors. Along with pan-handlers entertaining the many tourists with various types of entertainment. There was a Captain Jack Sparrow look-a-like, musicians of all walks of life, disfigured children and other kids who just stood in front of you staring and waiting for money.
After a long afternoon at the market, I ventured from Wangnoi to the public pool facilities. When I arrived the pool was filled with children, all screaming and laughing at my presence. I am starting to get a complex! Anyway, many lined up to intently watch me undress to my bathing suit, to catch a glimpse of my curious color skin. I quickly stepped into the pool to cover my body and swam to the far end of the pool. Eventually all but a couple of children left, as it was dinner time, and I got the pool all to myself. Sweet chlorine relief!
Urai went out of her way to make sure I was properly nourished. She took great care in learning my taste preferences and dietary restrictions. Below is a partial list of some of the delicious food I’ve tasted in Bangsai:
My first lunch: Fresh spring rolls (tarot root, glass noodle and soy tofu wrapped in fresh rice paper), cucumber slices and fresh parsley from the garden, mango and rose apple slices. Rose apple is a new fruit to me. It was juicy and crunchy with a texture almost like celery, not too sweet. Perfect to clean the palet after a meal.
Lordy lord, I fell in love with this sweet Thai dessert, kaw dom mat, so much that we spend the next evening making it from scratch together. It consisted of sticky rice, banana and black beans wrapped in banana leaf. The pink banana frightened me at first as it looked like some sort of meat. After being steamed 2 hours, banana turns pink. Did you know this?
Some fried concoction we picked up at the market after the green attracted my vegan eyes. It was scallion and other greens in a flour dough fried to perfection and slices in wedges. Very satisfying as a vegan needs some fat in her diet sometime. Urai served it with a spicy dumpling dipping sauce.
My dinner of sauteed soy tofu (I say soy tofu as there are 2 types of tofu here in Thailand, soy and egg.) and sprouts, lemongrass, ginger and mushroom soup, sauteed morning glory with chili peppers. Amidst conversation, I ate a chili pepper and suffered a terrible bout of runny nose and eyes. Took me many scoops of white rice for me to recover.
Part of an absolutely huge breakfast. Bright red watermelon chucks, what I understood to be called “melonpom” – another new fruit: kind of like a little oval orange plum with less rubbery skin and a large mango-like pit, more traditional Thai dessert wrapped in banana leaves and these very interesting little critters: fried coconut milk dollops with scallion. The congealed coconut milk (the basis of all the Thai desserts to follow) gave the feel of poached egg. I chewed slowly, baffled.
Here’s a close-up of those coconut milk fried thing-a-ma-gigs. As far as I know, coconut milk is the only source of non-animal saturated fat. Being a vegan, I never eat saturated fat, spare of some curry now and again. I think my body is a bit confused by the texture and chemical composition of these coconut milk-based treats.
Along with the goodies above, this dish of fried veggies and rice was also part of breakfast! Since I’ve gotten to Thailand I have been eating Jai, the strict vegetarian style of food that also contains no onion or garlic… because it is more easily understood by Thai people. Tasting this fried rice with its scattering of diced onion, I realized how much I missed them.
Oh my gosh, this thing was kind of scary. That congealed coconut milk atop of these green little jelly things. I know, “things”? But I asked Urai several times what they were and I couldn’t understand what she was saying. I eventually just nodded and steered clear of them, thinking “jelly = gelatin”.
More coconut milk-based Thai dessert! Urai won’t be satisfied until she raises my record low LDL cholesterol (i.e. bad cholesterol). These dense babies wrapped in banana leaf were just delicious… banana and coconut infused gelatinous wonders. I am starting to fear this huge and drastic up in sugar intake.
Fried spring rolls. I was glad to see that Urai was not wasting what I wasn’t eating. My first meal’s fresh rolls were fried up and served with fresh basil. I had to ask for chop sticks as a fork and spring rolls do not mix. Between all this sweet Thai dessert and fresh veggies, my body really craves this fried stuff. I gobbled up all of these to my surprise. Appetite comes with eating.
Well, what do you know. I made this bad boy. Slaved over a coconut shredder, squeezed out its milk like it were a cow, assembled sliced banana with a blanket of the coconut milk-infused sticky rice, dropped a few cooked black beans before Urai wrapped it tight in banana leaf, tied it with bamboo and steamed it for 2 hours…
Another new fruit: Jackfruit. Amazing texture, similar to that of an edible flower. Thick skinned with a messy bite, almost meat-like. It tastes a bit pineapple-y. I was surprised to see it was purchased in a bag. Oh, speaking of bags: street vendor sell cola and other drinks in plastic bags here. So you see people walking around with plastic bags with straws in em.
A delicious vegetable-based soup. Huge cylinders of soft soy tofu, parsley, onion and celery. The celery here is tiny, like little twigs. Not one for drinking food, I ate all of the solids and left the broth. I don’t know where this stems from. Food psychology!
Urai is killing me with sugar and coconut. These coconut balls are filled with a delicious brown sugar and coconut compote, covered in coconut milk-thickened skin and dragged in more fresh coconut. Notice the theme.
This dessert I didn’t care for but I thought I’d share anyway. Sticky rice topped with what Urai called “custard” but tasted a bit like cat food smells, looked a bit like it too. Apparently most of her visitors don’t like this one.
Wonderful corn fritters. Simple and oh so yum. I wrapped them in the fresh basil and dipped them in the delicious apricot sauce, nibbling on a cucumber slice now and again to make the next fritter taste like the first. Notice that pink stuff in the upper left corner of the photo: more Thai dessert. Not sorbet or some new take on Neapolitan ice cream…
So onward to those pink balls. At this point, I was kind of filled to the brim with sugar and coconut milk-based wonderments. These tri-colored balls deserved a nibble, however. I was shocked to learn the green were colored with banana leaf, as the color seemed artificial. When I asked about the pink, Urai didn’t know how it got that color. Ok, just a nibble out of respect.
After a long first day at Bangsai, I wake up to the sound of raucous birds conversing, crowing roosters in the distance and an army of crickets. The village of Bangsai is alive in a way that compliments these noises, even amplifies them. The sun has not yet risen but Urai and her mother have been preparing a meal since 4 a.m. This meal is to be offered to the Buddhist monk who rows the river every morning. The offering ensures Urai that there will be ample food to eat in her next life. Again, the flowers are also offered in the hopes that she’ll be a knock-out, as well as well-fed. Food & beauty! I felt honored to be part of this tradition and woke early so as not to miss the man in orange. To my surprise, I was to make an offering to the monk as Urai and her mother cooked a meal on my behalf. I was nervous next to monk, fearing sitcom-like clumsiness resulting in mutual mortification. I feared pulling a Larry David. But all went well. Here’s to my good looks in my next lifetime.
Next on the agenda, an authentic Thai massage. I’d heard that Thai massage was intense but I did not expect to be putty in the strongest damn hands in Thailand. The 2-hour massage from head-to-toe was downright violent at some points, but well-needed. She literally lifted all major muscles from my their adjacent bones, contorted my body in yoga poses and stepped all over me.
My stay in Bangsai ended after a lesson with the village’s children. Giddy and eager to learn, they were hungry for English vocabulary words to jot in their notebooks. These were the happiest children I ever encountered, not one of them without a smile for more than a minute or so. They recited our alphabet perfectly but had difficulty with word pronunciation, giggling at their own stumbling tongues. Together we went over words related to the beach (sun hat, beach umbrella, swim suit, etc) and bedroom (curtains, alarm clock, nightstand, pillow, etc). After recitation, volunteers drew each word on the dry erase board. I was then asked to give them a yoga lesson. (?!) I didn’t want to let them down, as it was either yoga or math, so I led them in some common poses. Quickly had to invent new poses as I blanked out under pressure of my audience. After fulfilling the bodily-kinesthetic learners, we went on to music. Row, row, row your boat never sounded more adorable then within the stray cocking roosters and motor bikes within the village.
I was sad to leave Bangsai. Urai was an amazing host whom I will not soon forget. We spent a lot of time talking and it was interesting to hear her perspective. She has hosted people from all over the world and gained a unique insight because of this.
Urai’s wisdom: Apparently Europeans are often more quiet and less friendly than Americans. She believes that Americans are more warm-hearted and open than most other nationalities, that they are more effective and receptive communicators. She also said that most volunteers stomp around like elephants and slam doors. Several times she had to repair the hinges on the door. But she says that I walk quietly and considerately. Quiet & considerate, la-di-da.
Tomorrow, I hit Bangkok’s famous Chatuchak Weekened Market! Wait, I’m excited about shopping? Not regular shopping, but the thriftshopping! In this huge bargain barn there is a section devoted to used clothing. Thriftshopping in Thailand… I must be dreaming. Stay tuned for my finds.
Bangsai is a village located 20 kilometers from my Wangnoi homestay. This, my new home for the next 3 days, is situated on the Noi river and is constructed about 8 feet from ground level, as are all the dwellings here, in case of flooding from the Noi. Urai, my host sister, is a 30-year-old woman with a quick wit and sense of humor who went all out in immersing me in the village’s culture. She has been offering her home to farang volunteers like me for 5 years and knows a great deal of English (including Beyonce, Britney Spears, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. Ha!) Besides her knowledge of these very important American icons, she is as interested as I in next year’s presidential election. We chew the cud about Obama, Hillary and life in the big bad New York City. She feeds me… a lot. So much that I will create an entire posting dedicated to the amazing foods she sets on the floor for me.
Here are some shots of her home and the village.
The metal roof doesn’t do much to reflect the strong sun. Inside you can feel the heat radiating from above.
Plants and herbs are everywhere around the home. I sampled several basils from her garden, as well as fresh lemongrass and a chili peppers. Banana leaves serve as a home for many sweet Thai desserts, like gift wrap.
My body is sore today. After a delicious raw lunch, Urai and I toured the village and its surrounding swamps, farms and monasteries by bicycle. Being on a bike in the blazing Thai sun was glorious. All around me new and interesting sights of a bustling and humming world I’d never knew could exist within mine. Every millimeter (I’ve gone metric!) full of discovery, from the fowl trotting the edge of the swamps to the colorful convenience store we pit-stopped at, feasting on sweet treats like dried pineapple and a smoothy made of sugar, syrup and more sweetener. Eek.
Full moons in Thailand mean Buddhist holidays. And so we made a stop at a monastery to pay respect to Lord Buddha. I participated in these rituals with some guidance and explanation from Urai. She handed me a lotus flower and a small yellow candle rubber-banded to 3 wicks of incense and some tiny papers. The flower was placed in a large pot in front of the outdoor shrine. This offering is to greaten the chance of my returning in my next life in a beautiful form. Using the large burning candle within the shrine, we lit our small candles and placed them about the shrine with the others burning brightly. We then knelt and sandwiched our incense sticks between our palms, raising them to our chests for a prayer. After, the incense was stuck in the container of sand with the many others burning sweetly. The little papers contained gold foil which we were to place on the Buddha within the monastery. (Some pictures of foil-encrusted Buddhas can be seen on my previous post.)
We then knelt for one final ritual. Containers wither many numbered wooden sticks were brought to our hearts as we made a wish. These containers were then shaken until a single stick fell to the floor. The number on that stick (mine was 23) corresponded to a fortune scroll. Urai read my fortune and couldn’t directly translate but told me all will be well for me, in my future, my health, etc. Yay! Her fortune was not as positive so she left her scroll, unlike me who clutched it as if it were a winning lottery ticket. She then wrapped a blessed piece of orange material around my wrist which would protect me during my travels. Then, back on the bike!
Everywhere I go I seem to attract a lot of attention. The children of the village seem particularly amused by my presence. They scream what English they know my way (mostly “Hello” and, interestingly, “Fine, thank you. How are you?”) as if it were the funniest thing they’ve ever done. These children were very playful and posed for many pictures. They hold my hand and say “I love you”. They ask where I come from and repeat “Americaaaaaa”. Adorable.
After returning home, Urai prepared dinner. I worked up an appetite riding the bike but seemed to baffle Urai with the “small” portion I ate. Given the holiday, we attended service at the temple after dinner. The whole village was there, by this time the full moon above glowing a path to the beautifully ornate temple. We entered to listen to the chants of the monks who sat on a pedestal in their orange wraps. Not understanding the prayer, I observed the monks, very intrigued. They seemed almost like giant babies, oozing a purity, their weathered skin brown and inked with fading tattoos.
What a day in Bangsai.
My language and cultural lessons continued this morning with Sukanya. Feeling a bit quesy in the stomach this morning, I found it hard to focus. I had to make a conscious effort to slow my breathing and calm myself down. Fittingly, we spoke of the holistic perspective of Eastern medicine versus Western/the body and mind connection. I learned how to order vegan food in Thai, say thank you (Khob Khun Ka, which I had always interpretted as Tup Tim Thai.), Eastern religion’s connection to the creation of art (In the East, art is an extention of one’s spiritual path. You don’t study the technical skills of painting, sculpting, etc. in a school; they develop naturally through religious practices in a temple or monastery.) and some of the incarnations of Vishnu. I can tell that Sukanya likes our lessons. She brought several books to further explain some of the material we went over the previous day, the concepts or images she couldn’t articulate as well as she wanted given our language barrier. It is nice to be a student again; it is a role I take seriously and passionately.
The Quiet One was to be my guide for the continuation of the Wat tour in Ayutthaya. I quickly learned that he was not quiet so much as he knew very little English. As we ate lunch, we both had our Thai to English/English to Thai dictionaries in hand, attempting to make conversation. But most of our understanding of each other was facial expressions. I ordered a refill on my lunch of rice with veggies and then we hit the Wats. Without Sukanya, my tour of the ruins was a silent and introspective one. The Quiet One and I occassionally making translations on the things around us (dog, sleeping, transvestite, hot, sun, etc). Here is a pictorial of the day’s ruins:
Dismantled Buddhas are all over the place.
Near a large ruin sight there was a hub of elephants for doting tourists to ride. Sickeningly, they were all dressed up a like rich woman’s poodle, the poor creatures. For a fee you can take a picture with the more playful ones and I had the misfortune of witnessing this silly tourist attract the attention of all the surrounding by-standers. Disgusting. Later in March I will be heading to an Elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai that homes rescue elephants from exploitative tourist operations like this. But it is hard not to smile in the face of a beautiful elephant.
Tomorrow morning I head to my village homestay in the country side until Sunday. Until then…
Considering the dinner of white rice the previous evening, I woke up with a hungry vengeance, thinking satiety or bust. I fed myself an enormous breakfast that included 3 slices of toasted white bread with the reduced sugar rasberry jam that’s been all the rage here at the homestay (Note: This white bread is much like Wonderbread, cheap and filled with heaven knows what. Being a brown rice/brown bread type of gal, 3 slices of this stuff is like my eating a king-sized Snickers bar. And the reduced sugar jam, another foodie compromise.), 1 package of something called Gold Roast Instant Cereal Beverage (A mix of tiny cereal flakes, non-dairy creamer and sweetener. Like drinking a cup of super-soggy tiny sweetened Corn Flakes), 1 perfect clementine orange, 1/2 of this huge dragon fruit pictured, coffee and water. Full at last!
Today was the start of my language and cultural lessons with Sukanya, the manager of IFRE‘s program here in Thailand. Spending the day with Sukanya was the most rewarding experience thus far. She is an extraodinary scholar with an expensive database of knowledge. We began with a lesson on Thai language at the kitchen table. This was intended to give me a bit of background on the difficulty I would most likely encounter when I begin teaching the children next week. Thai is an extremely complicated language. Their alphabet consists of 44 characters (32 of them being vowels) and 5 tones, compared to our 26 letters, 5 or so vowels and singular tone. In addition, when speaking or referring to the Royal Family, one must use, in essence, an entirely different language as Thai words indicate the social class of who you are speaking to. And yet another different branch of the language is spoken with regard to Buddhist monks. Another piece of Thai language trivia: when reading and writing Thai, a sentence takes up multiple lines. For example, in the sentence “You eat an apple.” eat apple would be on the first line while You would be below that on another line. But most confusing about Thai language are the 5 different tones. Sukanya used P as an example. In the Thai alphabet, P can sound 5 different ways… all of which sounded exactly the same to me. Aah! All of this to say that, while in the classroom, pointing to the Thai word, instead of attempting to pronounce it, would be more effective… Damage control considering I’ll be teaching only for one week.
Sukanya then gave me a brief history of Thailand’s history, focusing on the ruling kingdoms. The short version:
Sukhothai: The first Thai ruling Kingdom. Early 13th century. I’ll be visiting the Kingdom ruins soon. It’s on my long list of independent Thailand excursions.
Ayutthaya: This kingdom ruled the school starting in the mid-14th century until the Burmese (and disease) attacked. Well, what do you know I got some pictures of the city’s awesome ruins below. This is where Sukanya and I spent the day.
Dhonburi: This Kingdom only lasted about 15 years. It moved across the river (the Chao Phraya river that I ferried around yesterday) to what you and I know as Bangkok, but what the Thais know as…
Rattanakosin: And get this, Rattanakosin is only part of the Thai word for Bangkok. Its full name is about 62 words (!). Why? To the best of my understanding: Astrology tells us that based on the day we are born we have certain characteristics, both weaknesses and strengths. The Thais believe that the day the word “Rattanakosin” was born it was also afflicted with weaknesses. In order to combat these weaknesses (that may weaken the Kingdom), words continue to be added.
I found Thailand’s history so very interesting and my many questions opened Sukanya up for spreading more knowledge. Once we reached Ayutthaya, discussions continued as we walked the ancient ruins of Wat Chaiwatthanaram. This ancient Buddhist monastery was abandoned and left to the elements after the Burmese invaded/illness became rampant in the area. I forget which one! Like Wat Arun yesterday, I climbed to the top of the mighty center prang, giving my knees quite the work-out.
Sukanya dropped me off at an area restaurant for lunch as I would need my energy for the many more Wats on the day’s itinerary. If we’ve ever eaten Thai food together you may know that the only dish I order is Pad See Ew, broad rice noodles fried with sweet soy sauce, Chinese broccoli, garlic and tofu. Today marked my first time in Thailand eating my favorite dish. It was just gosh-darned delicious! The taste was a bit different as strict Eastern vegetarians in the Buddhist fashion do not eat garlic (or onion). These are 2 of the 5 forbidden vegetables in the Buddhist diet that are thought to stimulate desires and warm the skin. Uh oh! Along with my meal I ordered a watermelon Slushy-type thing, pure watermelon juice and crushed ice. As I waited in the restaurant (called Ruean Rojjana, btw), I realized I must seize the opportunity to eat well as I didn’t know what to expect from the homestay that evening. I ordered a plate of fried spring rolls and requested chop sticks. C’mon, I’m a Thai food pro here. And for a basis of comparison, here is the scoop on the bill: Spring rolls were 100 Baht, Pad See Ew was 120 Baht and watermelon icee was 30 Baht. Total was 250 Baht, about $8US. And these are TOURIST prices. And Sukanya picked up the tab.
Next up, Wat Naprameru. This Wat was in very good condition as the Burmese used it as an army based when they invaded. Inside, while smiling at the slew of shiny Buddhas, Sukanya delved into some of the rituals and beliefs of Buddhism, including the 32 Characteristics of the Great Man. Those who are to become a Buddha must have all of these characteristics, kind of like SWF ISO man who channels external powers and reaches enlightenment type-of-thing. So what are these characteristics? Sukanya only revealed a few to me and, so far, it seems I know a few folks who may be good candidates to become Buddha. The power to control your breath (practiced through meditation), the practice of vegetarianism, straight fingers and toes and Chakras being open for business (practiced through this school of Buddhism’s yoga, different than the Indian practice popular in the States) are a few of the characteristics of the Great Man.
Onward to Wat Yai Chaya Mongkol, or The Great Temple of Auspicious Victory, and there is that Buddha lying on his side again. More trivia: The direction the reclining Buddha’s face is looking matters. If this fellow was facing the other direction, it would mean he was dead. I forget which direction is which. Take a look at his toes. There are those straight toes, one of the 32 Characteristics of the Great Man.
A devout Buddhist stray dog asleep on top of the temple.
The most impressive and bustling Wat of today’s Ayutthaya tour was Wat Panan Choeng. This expansive religious center of Ayutthaya was a labyrinth of active worship that was packed with people paying homage to their religious deities. All schools of Buddhism were represented, as well as Hinduism, which had a profound influence on Buddhism. Sukanya drew the attention of many visitors as we strolled the compound, her infectious passion for her Buddhist beliefs unleashed with a fury. Unfortunately at this point, my brain was reeling from the crash course in Thai and Buddhist history and I was ready for quiet reflection.
Ironically, after a day of learning of Buddha and his teachings, I was dropped off an an area mall for some shopping. I haven’t set foot in a mall in years, a huge feat for a girl raised on Long Island, but I was curious to witness a Thai mall. The place was quite the experience and had plenty of Western influence, for better or worse. I did make some purchases in this huge K-mart equivalent grocery supermarket/department store. I bought some pretty vegan wallets, a typically Asian tote bag (Cute, Japanese-inspired, big round eyes on everything-type fashion), hair dye (I dyed my hair again. This is just what I do when I travel, it seems.) and some veg food for the homestay. I spent about $20US. Oh and look, over-the-counter birth control. America, take note.
Fighting the rush hour traffic into Bangkok reminded me of home. My tour guide, Kai, and who I will refer to as the quiet one and I arrived at the Grand Place about 9 a.m. The compound of 20+ temples and worshipping sights for both Buddha and the King was a mob scene of international and Thai visitors alike. Since I was dressed in the ultra-revealing clam-diggers I needed to rent a long skirt to enter the compound. The architecture was stunning but one could not stand to admire too long before being bumped and nudged by the hoard of people. In between steps, Kai gave me a brief background on some of the Chinese and Hindu-influenced icons I was snapping pictures of. Unfortunately the the hazy sky did little to brighten up my the vibrant colors of the temples. Within the compound is the very popular Wat Phra Kaeo, or the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The emerald Buddha is encrusted with diamonds and gold (i.e. Buddha-style bling-bling).
Surrounding the Grand Palace were plenty of street vendors offering tourists all kinds of nooks and crannies. Kai treated me to some sliced yellow and red watermelon before finding a suitable place for me to get a strict vegetarian meal. My meal was 60 Baht (less than 2 American dollars) and was delish. Perfectly blanched vegetables in a light sauce with the standard white rice.
After our lunch, we moved onward to cross the Chao Phraya river via the Tha Thien ferry terminal to hit Wat Arun, or the Temple of the Dawn. This Wat was less bustling than those within the Grand Palace and much older. It was covered in a gorgeous mosaic of Chinese porcelain and its prangs were weathered and worn. Kai and I climbed the central prang to get the impressive views of the river and downtown Bangkok. After Wat Arun, I sampled the sweet corn fritters of the street vendors surrounding the ferry terminal. So far, the best food I’ve had here in Thailand!
Next, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho. And just like the name suggests, the temples holds an enormous shiny gold Buddha relaxing on his side. I had to resist the urge to snuggle up and spoon with him.
Then onward to backpackers’ mecca and global tourist crossroad Khao San Road in downtown Bangkok. I think Kai presumed I was a shopper (because I am woman? because I am American?) and so was baffled when I was unenthusiastic about perusing the shops and stalls of this area. But as a New Yorker, I equate Khao San road and its perimetering streets like going to Times Square. Tourist prices and tourist belligerence.
On our way back to my homestay in Wangnoi, Kai took me to an enormous fruit market with real local flair.. so much that my presence prompted double-takes and stares, first to me and then towards him. I was wondering how on Earth circumstances aligned to have me spending the entire day with this guy myself. The market was very impressive and brimming with fresh fruits he demanded I try. At the market, we bought mangoes and one huge dragon fruit. Upon my return, dinner at my homestay had long been served and was all-meat anyway. Hmph. I am beginning to wonder if eating vegetarian in Thailand will be as fulfilling as I had thought. I nuked a plate of white rice and smeared the only fitting condiment available on top… a squeeze from a tube of Vegemite. Ew. What is this stuff?
Evenings are slow at the homestay and I’m looking forward to being on my own watch. If it weren’t for my new moleskin journal and all of you in my thoughts, I’d be hijacking a tuk-tuk and heading south to the islands where doing nothing is more acceptable.
The concept of two months on the whim of my desires; the abolishment of schedules, routines, familiarity, family and friends is overwhelming. Although I operate pretty well within these paramenters, I am curious to see how their complete alteration will affect my days, thoughts, feelings; life. Who will emerge through such an all-encompassing change of daily living? What details might I find pleasure, annoyance, fulfillment, nostalgia through? A trans-hemispherical flight is an ideal place to begin to ponder this.
The 17-hour direct flight from JFK to Bangkok was surprisingly tolerable. I had plenty to keep me occupied: movies on demand, books, free New York magazine acquired from the Band of Horses show a couple of days ago yet worlds away, my thoughts, the passengers around me, the inertia of the plane as I sit strapped between two men (one sleeping Thai and one American watching the Simpsons movie and laughing freely). I watched Lars & the Real Girl. Intended to write a review, intended to snap photos of my special vegetarian in-flight meals. But part of me wants a few days to shrug off “to-do” and self-made obligations of little consequence. The structure I hope to support my everyday life with, the poles under the circus tent… they’ll just have to take a backseat to “to be determined”.
After immigration, customs, baggage claim and currency exchange, Kai greeted me and drove me to my homestay. We drove 45 minutes north of the airport to Wangnoi, far off the beaten tourist track. The drive from the airport on the outskirts of Bangkok to Wangnoi offered just a small glimpse of my new home for the next 9 weeks. The highways are similar to that of the states, 7-11 gas station conglomerates, scattered industry, abandoned dwellings and ramshackled homes. Kai and I spoke of mango trees, Thai baht versus the American dollar, the difference between marriage in Thailand and the States and plans for the next week as I begin my 2-week volunteer program.
At the homestay, I have my own private room. It’s bare-bones but with an air conditioner in very good working order. My things look uncomfortable and confused in this room but I sleep very well in the bottom bunk covered in cow sheets. The AC switches off every 3-4 hours and begins to dictate my sleeping patterns. I wake up hot and clammy and fight through very vivid dreams, quickly orientating myself back to reality. My dreams are of people from America, my friends and family. I put real effort into moving them into my waking memory but they all dissipate. I look out the screen window and I’m still confused.
When I woke up again, I peer out the screen window again. The legnth of the car-lines block in the haze of of early morning, I could be anywhere. As the morning progressed the details came into focus: the license plate of the cars with their ornate Thai lettering, the colorful trim of the homes, the subdued volume of a female Thai vocalist played from a pick-up truck street vendor, products swaying from its canopy. There were blinking lights around a tiny shrine of Buddha. The morning birds chirping, the overcast of blue-grey haze of dawn diminished these details as I peered thourough the vertical blinds of the room… all I knew of Thailand so far.
In celebration of this day of love and Unwound’s 14-minute song conglomerate that still punches me as hard 10+ years later (3 or so minutes below), let us meditate on the absurdity of tradition. Let us create our own, with less pink packaging.
Tags- – you’re it
- 3 brothers(11),
- 15 minutes of fame(9),
- animal sanctuary(7),
- banana split(5),
- banh mi(7),
- bone shakers(19),
- brussels sprouts(12),
- carroll gardens(5),
- champ's family bakery(10),
- chicago soydairy(5),
- chick pea(5),
- chocolate chip cookies(27),
- citi field(5),
- coconut whip(6),
- creme brulee(5),
- domestic travel(84),
- earth balance(9),
- east village(18),
- family matters(34),
- fancy pants(12),
- field roast(6),
- french toast(13),
- frozen treat(9),
- hearts of palm(5),
- hot dogs(9),
- ice cream(23),
- i heart lists(34),
- International Travel(66),
- kate's joint(5),
- kow dom mat(14),
- long island(35),
- los angeles(5),
- lower east side(7),
- mac and cheese(9),
- memory lane(50),
- My Vegan Kitchen(299),
- New York City(67),
- on the road(66),
- on the soapbox(51),
- Out/About Vegan(342),
- park slope(7),
- peanut butter(8),
- potato salad(5),
- product review(14),
- red pepper(6),
- roadside attractions(7),
- rockville centre(10),
- soft serve(6),
- someone is staring at you in personal growth(12),
- sour cream(7),
- soy science meat(15),
- star wars(5),
- sticky rice(21),
- strange fruit(9),
- summer roll(6),
- sweet potato(16),
- the examined life(46),
- These are a few of my favorite things(13),
- tofu benedict(7),
- tofu scramble(17),
- upper east side(6),
- vegan brunch(10),
- vegan cheese(5),
- vegan cookies invade your cookie jar(9),
- vegan with a vengeance(6),
- veggie burger(20),
- VV Brooklyn(95),
- VV Colorado(5),
- VV Connecticut(6),
- VV Long Island(42),
- VV Manhattan(83),
- VV Massachusetts(6),
- VV New Jersey(9),
- VV NYC Burger(5),
- VV Pennslyvania(5),
- VV Queens(18),
- VV Rhode Island(5),
- VV Thailand(24),
- VV Upstate NY(23),
- west village(7),
- whole foods(6),
- why vegan(15),
- wordless Thursday(16),
In the Past
- June 2013
- May 2013
- April 2013
- March 2013
- February 2013
- January 2013
- December 2012
- November 2012
- October 2012
- September 2012
- August 2012
- July 2012
- June 2012
- May 2012
- April 2012
- March 2012
- February 2012
- January 2012
- December 2011
- November 2011
- October 2011
- September 2011
- August 2011
- July 2011
- June 2011
- May 2011
- April 2011
- March 2011
- February 2011
- January 2011
- December 2010
- November 2010
- October 2010
- September 2010
- August 2010
- July 2010
- June 2010
- May 2010
- April 2010
- March 2010
- February 2010
- January 2010
- December 2009
- November 2009
- October 2009
- September 2009
- August 2009
- July 2009
- June 2009
- May 2009
- April 2009
- March 2009
- February 2009
- January 2009
- December 2008
- November 2008
- October 2008
- September 2008
- August 2008
- July 2008
- June 2008
- May 2008
- April 2008
- March 2008
- February 2008
- January 2008
- December 2007
- August 2007
- July 2007
- June 2007
- May 2007
- February 2007
- January 2007
- December 2006
- November 2006
- October 2006
- September 2006
- August 2006
- July 2006
- June 2006
- May 2006