I spent the day in Old Sukhothai. Wandering around the lush grounds of Sukhothai Historical Park by rented bicycle, I left with my clothing a shade darker and soaked in sweat. It is very, very hot here in Sukhothai. Actually, the country’s highest temperatures are here: currently 36.2 C at 5 p.m. What the hell does that mean? About 97 F. Plus, it is summer right now in Thailand, which means the usual heat plus humidity.
Maybe it was the heat or not having a guide to pass on historical information along with the sights, but I was not in the mood for ancient ruins today, which is Sukhothai’s claim to fame. I found myself more excited about photographing the gorgeous trees that lined the greenway then the relatively small area of ancient temples housed in Old Sukhothai Historical Park. The very loud rattle of what seemed to be thousands of locusts also seemed to speed up my visit.
Compared to Ayutthaya, this historical park is unimpressive and I wound up finishing my visit in less than two-hours. Wat Mahathat was, by far, the best site and it happens to be the first sight upon leaving the ticket booth, making the rest of the journey of the area anti-climactic and a bit ho-hum. I did get some nice shots of these ruins (and some of the others) but the hazy sun from all directions blurred a lot of my shots. But, considering all this, I enjoy photographing Buddha’s face. Such a great guy.
Getting way too comfortable in Chiang Mai, it was time to move on. I headed further North to Chiang Rai via 3rd class bus along with the locals. After a few hours uphill, I was at Chiang Rai. Along the way I had devoured the my 5 large greasy spring rolls I had made earlier in the day, still in awe of how much one can accomplish in a day when all the hours are your own. Also a long the way, something I hadn’t seen in weeks: rain! The high altitude brought wet roads, the sound of slickness, the smell of the air, I realized I missed it.
To my surprise, the Chiang Rai bus station was not packed with aggressive tuk-tuk drivers attacking the disembarcking bus. I was asked rather politely if I needed a ride. Having to run to the 7-11 for some supplies, I denied the offer and had to seek a driver afterwards. Something I have never had to do before in Thailand.
I checked into a great place called Chat House. This kind of guest house is backpacker’s dream. With superfast internet access, very friendly and accommodating staff and a full restaurant with plenty of room to lounge and relax, it is hard to believe the price of 80 baht a night. They also offer trekking and tours and laundry service. My room was cozy and allowed me to catch up on the sleep lost waking a crack of dawn for full day tours the prior two evenings in Chiang Mai.
After finally getting a day to wake up naturally, I emerged from my room for a quick bite before hitting the shared shower facility.. a worthy but often icky endeavor. I ordered cornflakes with banana and soy milk, appreciating each bite and crunch. (Gosh, I miss my flax cereal.) The owner made the rounds to the tables and asked what my day’s travel plans were. The conversation was informative and ended in my hiring private transportation (the man’s brother) for the day as my sightseeing wishes were far too complicated through public transport. The price was right and he was genuinely interested in facilitating a worthwhile day in Chiang Rai, not at all a pressured sales deal.
So my golden chariot would be motorbike and the driver, this man. He was a gracious and patient driver who gave me my space at each location. The first stop was a visit to some hilltribe communities about 45 minutes outside of Chiang Rai. This activity draws in tons of eager tourists and their money, resulting in the relocation of some tribes to new grounds closer to the tourist cities and the environment of the visit to seem intrusive. Although I hate to contribute to that, it was a unique opportunity to see the daily life of these very interesting and colorful tribes people.
The fact that I wasn’t arriving with a busload made me feel a bit better. However, from the look on some of the their faces in my photographs, it is evident the villagers are not content with the constant stream of visitors. I tried to be as polite a guest as I could, asking if it is Ok to photograph and communicating thanks as clearly as possible. The sad truth is that for these villagers, visits from tourists are the main source of income. Their crafts are for sale within the village, as well as in the markets at the main cities they border. There are also many initiatives in place to increase village profit through these sales and decrease those from the production of opium.
The Akha Tribe. There is a very interesting matriarch structure to their tribe. Married women work in the fields while the men stay home and watch the children, make crafts & tools and smoke opium. I think I know some guys who’d love to be Akha men.
My next stop was Wat Rong Khun, a beautifully decorated temple of white and mirror designed by renowned artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat. Along with this breathtaking structure, the grounds also contained his paintings for sale along with a separate hall of his larger and more intricate canvas paintings (his master works). No photography was allowed within these museums but his work can be seen here, if you’re interested.
Thamptupu was a visit I threw in as we both miscalculated the ease of travel for the original two destinations. Thamptupu is a cavern of Buddhist worship and meditation. My motorbiker joined me in descending into the cave as he was interested to see the holy one within the limestone as well. It was a quick visit that may have not been worth the trek via bicycle (my original plan) as the dirt load leading to it was long and very rocky.
Getting to Houy Keaw waterfall was a strenuous ride uphill, first by bike and then by foot. Climbing up the steep and uneven incline was worth the spectacular view of the falls and the cool mist of the splashing water. The highest viewpoint also contained an area for swimming, already inhabited by 2 middle-aged Europeans and, strangely, a young Thai girl of 10 or 11. She was being tossed and thrown about in the water, much to her and the middle aged man’s glee. Strange.
It was still early after that fourth stop and we were then going to venture to a hit spring that was in the area. It turned out to be closed for cleaning which suited my waning enthusiasm. I was beat. Riding on the back of a motorbike is a full body workout. Fighting to sit straight against the wind’s velocity works the abdomen deeply. Holding the bar behind my seat contracts the delts and pecs. Sustaining a comfortable distance from my driver works the inner thighs. Phew! A Coke sounded refreshing so I had my first one in years.
After a layover in Bangkok, I headed up to Chiang Mai, the tourist epicenter of the North and gateway to hill tribe villages and treks, the Golden Triangle (more on this next week) and a variety of National Parks, including one boasting the highest peak in Thailand. Although the variety of attractions Chiang Mai has to offer me is appealing, I first look forward to having a home base for more than a measly two nights, a place packed with resources for my weary head and aching body.
Chiang Mai was just the place. The heart of the city’s layout was easy and stress-free to maneuver with a full variety of offerings within a relatively short distance. The downtown or Old City (i.e. tourist central) is within a moat, separating business geared towards travelers from those geared towards the locals. For once, the tourist offerings are more interesting than beyond the moat. With a ton of restaurants and guest houses competing for my baht, prices are very reasonable. Fresh foods, fruit juices, coffee houses, cooking classes, yoga and meditation classes, Muay Thai boxing matches, cabaret and plenty of bars: there is much to do within the city’s moat without even accounting for day trips and tours offered at every corner and guest house. Here I will feed my head, body and belly: the halfway point to heading home.
After day-long bus trips and not much in the way of physical activity (besides walking), a yoga class was certainly on my itinerary. Chiang Mai Yogasala offered relatively cheap all-level classes in the evening. The 2 hours of poses with an ambitious instructor wrung out the lifelessness each muscle from head-to-toe. I exited the studio wondering why I don’t do this more often. Yogasala was one of many yoga studios in the Old City but I’d recommend it highly for a challenging break from the tourist shuffle (quite similar to movie-theater-exit-walk).
To correspond with my agenda of rest and relaxation, I booked a room with more desirable enmities than my usual squalor. The Rendezvous Guest House offered me a balcony overlooking a gorgeous temple (Friday night monk chanting at no extra cost), a television with a few English channels, a hot shower and fridgerator. The place was immaculate by Thailand’s standards, meaning only a small parade of ants in bathroom. There was also a very cheap laundry service I took advantage off right down the block which properly laundered my fine frocks. (I’ve been hand washing my clothes since I arrived. Yes, with a washboard and tub o’ suds.)
Besides the tons of services and food offerings (see separate post) available here, there are the usual lovely Wats and monasteries. Immediately at my doorstep was Wat Phan On, a beautiful temple surrounded by tables and chairs under an umbrella of trees for contemplating the meaning of one’s life. Also within the temple was Monk’s Chat, where yo may ask to your heart’s content about monastic life. Feeling a bit shy and intimidated by the men in orange, I asked not.
Being intrigued by this sign right outside my guest house, I figured this play, offered at the auditorium of Chiang Mai’s AUA Language Center, would make for an interesting Friday night. Boarding a tuk-tuk to grab myself a ticket on the other side of town, it felt all the more home-like to have to be running errands.
Right before showtime I mingled amongst the theater folk in the foyer, scarfing down free fruit salad cups of sweetened banana, dragon fruit, apple, watermelon and pineapple, almost forgetting that the fruit wasn’t the main attraction. Between the criss-crossing talent and networking artists, I swore I wasn’t in Thailand. The attendees were mostly high-brow middle-aged Americans, even older art-farts, the GLBT community and the only African Americans I’ve seen since arriving. The diversity and energy was very NYC. The small theater filled up slowly and I spent the time fascinated by the many conversations around me that I could actually understand for a change. I missed the daily voyeurism of being within a culture I understand, in the stream of other’s lives in crowded Brooklyn.
The play consisted of 13 monologues followed by an open mic opportunity. Overall, the performance of the actors was good but the content, mostly uninspiring. There were interesting stories: one of a woman whose job was to teach gynecological med students the how-to’s of the clinical touch and another from a young woman from Myanmar escaping horrid conditions by way of the Thailand border, but many of the others were simplistic. Sitting and listening, I recognized that I embrace the That Takes Ovaries doctrine almost daily. But I was tired…and snuck out of the theater before I began to seriously consider communicating this to the crowd during the open mic session.
Quick note: I am very happy that I altered my plans to include runs to Ubon, Udon and Nong Khai. These cities have fully immersed me in daily Thai life and some very worthwhile attractions.
On my bicycle tour of Nong Khai, I visited the well-known sculpture garden of Sala Kaew Ku (a.k.a. Wat Khaek). The strange towering concrete works of art are just as strange as the story behind their construction. Laotian artist fleeing communist repression in his homeland in 1975 stumbles upon a hermit in the mountains. The hermit, a yogi-priest-shaman (Sounds like Yoda he does.) accepts him in his cave and becomes his spirirtual teacher. When the Laotian artist emerges from underground years later, he masterminds the construction of these enormouse sculptures, all of which represent the Wheel of Life based on the teachings of his spiritual guru. The circumbant and perpetual journey “begins” with “the extrordinary chance of your existantnce”, the union of your mother and father, and continue onward into childhood, adulthood, marriage, adultery, sickness and death. Unfortunately the park’s titles and signage had no English translation so I could not follow the circle in order.
I pedalled onward to Wat Po Chai, a beautifully ornate temple with monks’ quarters on the grounds. The ceiling of the Wat was particularly impressive and told the story of the temple’s centerpiece gold and bronze Buddha. Sinking in the river during transport, it was thought to be a miracle when 25 years later the Buddha floated up to the surface of the water.
Heading to Kaeng Tana National Park from Ubon Rathathani proved to be yet another adventure exploring Thailand’s circuit of buses. One with new lessons to be learned, like finding out how far the bus stop is from the park entrance, how frequently said bus makes return trips and how late the bus runs back to your destination. All of these details I overlooked hoping to have a nice, spontaneous excursion to Kaeng Tana, a landmark in the district of Amphurs Khong Chiam. After an hour or so East from Ubon Ratchathani, I arrived in a town called Pibunmangsahan. From this thriving little town, I hitched a ride with another bus dropping schoolgirls of to their home villages. The bus traveled about 20 km east, through roaming buffalo, ostrich (!) and cows til I was dropped off a few kms from the park entrance. I wandered in by foot, feeling like the last person on Earth.
I was there to see the river rapids. The map I acquired at the T.A.T. (Tourism Authority of Thailand) promised a heavy flow of active gush. But alas, the river was calm and tranquil. Slightly disappointed, I soon perked up to realize I would be able to walk the rock formations normally inundated with the strong current and get an up-close view of the erosion resulting from that current. The rock was smooth and shaped as if made by a master sculptor with pools of green water in its many potholes. There was a young boy sitting in a large crater washing up while his mother used another crater to scrub out some clothes. Never failing to entertain a local with my pasty presence, the woman waved and laughed as if I was the one doing my laundry in a rock. I gave her a hearty wave and resisted the urge to ask to photograph her and her boy.
After a quick motorbike ride out of the park, I was dropped off at a Buddhist temple along the river. The grounds were beautiful and included a statue of a beautiful female Buddha, leopards and lions. They also overlooked the entire town that rested along the river.
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.
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