Sunday, February 28, 2010

Bangkok I.i

And now we arrive in Bangkok. We got a momentary taste of the Thai heat as we passed through the flexible tube that connects the plane to the airport. And the airport was such a change from our time in India! It was so clean and white and sparkly and modern and it was so strange to be back in such a Western looking atmosphere. I have to admit, I got used to it pretty quickly though. It almost felt like home. We passed by quite a few security guards as we made our way through customs and all that. They were very sharply dressed in tight black uniforms and strapped down with a belt full of all kinds of goodies. Once again, quite a change from India. Finally stepping outside brought back memories of the Miami airport. You know it's going to be hot and muggy but somehow you're never quite prepared for the warm thick air that wraps its meaty fingers around you. Ah, it made me nostalgic! Next, we had to deal with getting a taxi. We were well prepared for this though, because the hostel we were staying at was awesome and gave very detailed information about "how to get a cab" when we made our reservations. So the first guy we asked was a no-go because he refused to use the meter, and rule number one is always use the meter. Second guy says "Yes, meter okay" but once we get ourselves and our backpacks in the car, he taps and fiddles with his meter and announces that it is broken. So we got our stuff and got back out because rule number one: always use the meter. Taxi number three was the winner because he was happy to use the meter! And he had a sweet ride - everything was nicely lacquered and the leather seats embossed. The ride was smooth and uneventful. We just watched the distant city lights coming closer and closer as we drove into the center of Bangkok. It was strangely comforting to see all the tall, glass buildings in the distance, some lit with colored lights or topped with interesting looking signs or decorations. The roads were wide and paved, people drove in their lanes, and there was almost no honking. It was so tame compared to the last two months we spent in India and Egypt. Over the course of our stay we've met quite a few people who comment on how "crazy" the traffic is and I just can not see it. To our eyes, the traffic is incredibly calm and organized! I mean, there's hardly any honking, people stay in their lanes, there are no horse-drawn carts holding everyone up, buses actually stop to let people on, etc. You could almost say that the traffic lacks character. Either way, we got to our hostel (the Soi 1 Guesthouse, a great place) within 30 minutes. By the time we arrived I just knew I was going to like Bangkok. I suspected as much from the moment I got off the plane, but by the time we arrived at our hostel I was certain. There was nothing specific to tie my feelings to, I just knew it. I think Chuck felt the same as me. The hostel was a cool place, with the reception on the 3rd floor. The owner, Dave, was incredibly cool. He was personable and knowledgeable and was very good at making you feel like you've known him for years. Once we'd settled into our dorm-style bunk beds, the only thing on our mind was Thai food. We asked if he knew a good place to eat. He directed us to what ended up being our favorite restaurant in Bangkok. And when I say restaurant I mean it very loosely. The place was in a large space that is occupied by a market in the morning, empty in the afternoon, and then transformed into a food court of sorts in the evening. Our cart of choice (there were three) was the one in the very back. That first night we went there the waiters and cooks were all incredibly nice and smiley. I should note here that apparently it's a "Thai thing" to smile all the time. The Thai people are a very smiley culture and supposedly smile when angry, sad, happy, or whatever. I'm not exactly sure what that means - do they have a convincing happy-smile in place when they want to rip your throat out? Is it the same as just "sucking it up" in the States when an idiot customer comes in to your store and treats you badly? I know there is also a great importance in "saving face" as well, and I think this ties in with the smiling. At first I kept worrying that I might actually be offending people despite their smiles, but I think that maybe you can still tell whether someone's smile is genuine or forced. So eventually I just got over that and went with what my instincts were telling me. But at this little restaurant they seemed to be genuine in their greetings which was really nice. We sat in fold-up chairs at one of many fold-up tables and ordered the quintessential Thai dish: pad thai. And man was it tasty! Honestly, as I sit and write this two months later I can still say it's the best pad thai I've had, and I've tried quite a few other pad thais since. What a great start to Thailand...! And to make it even better, our two pad thais cost us a less than $3 US. It was just great. Back at the dorm we checked our emails for a bit and then climbed into bed.

Our hostel was completely covered in printouts explaining what to see, how to get there, how to avoid scams, how to get around, what's worth seeing outside of the city, where to stay, what time the bus/train leaves, etc. Much more info than one could reasonably read in a month long stay. We happened to read one paper detailing a good first-day tour of the city. It basically taught you the ins and outs of using the river taxi and Skytrain while taking you to some of the most famous sites in the city. So we decided that we should follow the guide and learn the Bangkok ropes. We walked to the canal, crossed the bridge and waited on the rusty metal dock for the river taxi with the two small dogs that liked to hang out there. One would just lay there while the other liked to pop up and trot around the dock like a security guard every time someone come along. Oh my, the river taxi is one of the funnest things in Bangkok! It's so simple but somehow sums up the whole of Bangkok in my mind. It's a perfect mix of Western meets Eastern and modern meets old-school, and that's what Bangkok is to me. This blend of old and new, and East and West is a big part of what makes the city so amazing. Let me explain the river taxi. It's a long, covered, giant canoe-shaped boat filled with rows and rows of wooden benches. There's a long tarp with draw-strings attached to either side of the boat so you can shield yourself from any spray flying off the water. The boat pulls up at the dock and the boat-handlers quickly loop their ropes around the pylons, pulling it against the dock. There is no ramp or doorway to get on the boat - you just step on the edge of the boat and duck down, climbing under the ropes and roof to take a seat. Before everyone is even safely on the boat they unloop and take off. It's so brilliant and so would not be allowed in the Western world. I mean, climbing over the side of a still moving boat? That would never be allowed! I posted a video of it here. A lot of the people who ride the boat are business people going to and from work, so during rush hour the boat gets incredibly packed. It's also pretty cheap - $0.30 to $0.50 a ride. Another fun feature is that during high tides the boat is a bit too tall to fit under some of the small bridges, so they have created a clever system to avoid crashing into them. The roof is attached with moving parts so that it can be pushed down into a lower position when the bridges in question come up. So we're sitting on the boat watching the potted-plant-strewn balconies fly by and suddenly the roof appears to be falling on our heads. I thought something had broken. It stopped a few inches away and moments later was popped back into place. No one else seemed to be phased by this, so I figured it must be a normal part of the operating plan. After a few more times we realized that it was because the bridges were too low. Man, that is clever! Why let a thing like low bridges stop you?? Just build a moving roof! I think the river taxi was seriously the highlight of our first day. After our boat ride we wandered around in confusion for a bit trying to figure out where exactly we were. Two or three people tried to scam us, but we were well-read on our scams and weren't about to fall for any of that crap. They tried the one where they claim that a special giant Buddha, or temple that is closed for all the rest of the year is open just for that day, or that it's the one day of the year that it's free to get in. It's all a big lie and somehow they get you to buy gems off them - I dunno how that works but apparently people have gotten scammed this way. Some people are such suckers. Eventually we got ourselves figured out on the map and started off towards the old town (the oldest part of town if you couldn't guess). Let me tell you, Thailand is hot and sunny. They aren't kidding when they say this - in fact, it's a bit of an understatement. It is ridiculously hot! And the sun just eats through your skin everywhere it touches, which is why you will see a lot of ladies walking around with a news paper or hand held up between the sun and their face. Like India, Thailand is a bit obsessed with having light skin and they have all the skin-lightening lotions to prove it. Seeing ladies trying to stay out of the sun is quite common. We walked past the Democratic Monument, got an opaque white, rice-like bottled drink, passed by a ton of people selling some sort of lottery tickets, and eventually ended up at the tourist hot spot known as Khao San Road. You could basically call this area little-America. It's full of hippie, backpacker tourists and masses of clothing stands all selling the exact same things at stupidly high prices. It's a rather ridiculous area and I think pretty much the only people who go there are farangs (that's what the Thai people call foreigners). We walked down the road, peeked at the various vendor stands, and were happy to be done with it once we reached the end. The most exciting thing we saw was a wai-ing Ronald McDonald. "What is wai-ing?" you might ask. I'm sure you would recognize it if you saw it. If you bring your palms flat together in front of you and perhaps give a slight nod of the head, that's a wai. Basically. It's a sign of respect in Thai culture, and a lot of other cultures (especially Asian) have similar gestures. In Thailand it's rather complicated to know when you're supposed to wai first, or if you should wait for the other person to wai, or if you should bother to wai at all. And then there's the question of how deep a wai you should give - the higher the hands and the deeper to bow, the more respect it conveys. So if you see the King (the King of Thailand, duh) you would give a nice big wai, but for the day-to-day encounters, someone unfamiliar with the whole system might get confused. Not to worry though! Foreigners are not expected to wai, and they might think you're a bit funny if you do. When we first arrived in Bangkok Chuck still had his Indian habits, which included doing the Indian version of the wai when saying "hello" or "thank you." He got a few confused reactions until he managed to break the habit. So at the end of Khao San Road we came to our first temple. I love the abundance of decoration at the Thai temples. It's not like the elaborate, well-laid out decoration found in European Churches, but more chaotic and disorganized. There is a lot of gold everywhere. Most Buddhas seem to be gold colored, and there are usually a lot of them inside the temple. This temple had the typical set-up with a large Buddha in the center surrounded by many smaller statues and various other golden decorations, and perhaps some flowers. It was pretty amazing to see, actually. The temples in Thailand are something special. We made a donation and went on our merry way. We headed towards the Grand Palace, and with me managing to get us a bit lost along the way we got to see a first glimpse of one of my favorite things in Thailand: street vendors. These vendors were simple and small, with maybe a small sheet laid out on the sidewalk covered in a mishmash of things you might expect to find at a garage sale. I was surprised at how many people were set up down the road, though. I can't imagine how that many people manage to find enough buyers to make their time worth it. But it was pretty cool. We passed by another interesting looking temple on our walk, and stepped in to have a look. Like pretty much all temples throughout Thailand, it was edged in intricate gold designs embedded with colorful glass mirrors. This decoration typically lines the roofs and wraps down around the doorways and windows as well. It's really impressive! Everything is so golden, and sparkling. We saw a bunch of school kids at this temple, all dressed in their pleated skirts and button-down shirts. They must have been on a field trip. We decided to pass by the Grand Palace for the day, since it was getting later in the afternoon. The road we were on led us straight to Pier 9, one of the many piers that sits on the big river that runs through Bangkok. Pier 9 is one of the busier piers and is filled with delicious street food and cart vendors. Oh man, Thailand is just the greatest place, let me tell you. So many delicious foods at your fingertips just makes you giddy. Tons of different exotic fruits, skewered meats cooking on small grills, soup carts, fruit juices, curry stands, noodles, etc. It's just fantastic. After a few bites to eat we hopped on the boat and headed south down the river. The boat is sort of run on the honor system. The ticket person wanders around shaking her tube of coins and shouting out for people to buy their tickets. If you just ignored her, you could probably get away with a free ride. But, most people seem to be honest and pay if they need to. Besides, it's pretty cheap. We got off at Central Pier and wandered around the area a bit. We found another small market with food and clothes. I got a very interesting squid skewer which was a bit strange. It was a bit squidier than your typical squid. Eventually we hopped on the Skytrain (Bangkok's overhead metro-rail) and road back to our hostel. Lucky for us, the hostel is very close to one of the Skytrain stops. I won't bore you with the few hours we spent relaxing, so I'll skip right to dinner. Chuck asked Hostel-Owner-David if he had another suggestion for where to eat dinner, since his previous suggestion had turned out so well. He directed us to a place about 20 minutes away on foot, and off we went. It had a curious name that piqued our interest: Cabbages and Condoms. The restaurant didn't disappoint either. When we stepped inside we were met with two mannequins completely dressed in colorful condoms. They weren't just randomly glued on, but arranged to make a nice skirt and blouse, or as it was Christmas they had dressed one mannequin up in a condom Santa outfit. It was pretty impressive! And the whole deal with the condoms was to promote safe sex and supposedly they give a portion of their profits to AIDS organizations and stuff. And to top it all off, the food was quite good.

The morning of the 19th I didn't want to get out of bed. I wove in and out of sleep for a few hours before finally rolling myself up. As soon as I made my appearance in the common area Chuck was dragging me off to get a massage. We went to a place just down the road that the hostel had recommended. Without their recommendation we might have been lost in the sea of massage shops that are scattered throughout the city. Just on the short road that is home to the hostel there are about five or six shops. Massages are an incredibly popular tourist past-time, which makes for a whole lot of massage shops. Half of the shops offer more than just a massage - particularly for men. Some of these shops offer "full service" for about 1500 baht ($45 US) on top of the massage fee (usually around 800 baht or $25 US). It's all perfectly legal because prostitution is legal in Thailand. This is, of course, another huge tourist draw, obviously mainly (but I'm sure, not exclusively) for men. A lot of the prostitutes are looking for more than just a paid one night stand, and there are enough foreign men who are happy to have a girlfriend for the week, so you'll frequently see a young, attractive Thai woman walking arm-in-arm with an older foreign man or a young studdly guy as though they're girlfriend and boyfriend. A lot of the men you see with the paid girlfriends (you can usually tell she's paid for by the provocative clothing and the overt displays of public affection) are not very attractive, or look like... well, douchebags. But there are a fair few that look like respectable, kind guys. It's all a bit strange to see, but that's how life works there in Thailand. I can't say how many women are feeling forced into this kind of work, or how many find it fun to have a boyfriend take care of them for a week or two, so I don't really feel I have much room to judge the situation. We just tended to notice the extreme cases where a very young woman was hanging on an old, gross man, or a skimpily dressed woman was arm-in-arm with a young guy wearing his hat sideways. We would snicker a bit and wonder at what might have led them to their decisions and move on. There are a lot of people we've met though who really don't like it and want to leave Bangkok as soon as possible so they don't have to see those sorts of couples. I can understand that point of view as well. To each their own! I suppose I preferred to embrace the parts of Bangkok that I liked, such as the massage. Speaking of which, we both got a Thai massage. They don't use any oil for this massage and they give you a soft, pajama-like outfit to wear. I guess the massage could be described perhaps as deep tissue and they really like to grind into certain muscles to relieve tension. For me it was my neck. She kept grinding her elbow into the muscle that runs from the neck to the shoulder over and over for five full minutes. I was determined to endure the process so as to gain the full benefits of the massage, although by the end I was practically seeing stars. The rest of the experience was quite nice though. They use the side of their forearms and their elbows as well as their hands to work your body. At one point I think she was kneeling on my butt to be able to reach my back evenly on both sides. And at the end they twisted me around into funny positions with my hands behind my back or over my head, turning and twisting me to stretch out different muscles. It was quite interesting! And it left me with a sore neck. No pain, no gain, right? And to make it all even sweeter, we paid 200 baht each for the one hour massage, plus 50 baht tip to our respective masseuses. So that's about $7.50 for an hour long massage. I felt like I was ripping them off! Good god, one hour massages in the States start at $90! It was just amazing. After the massage we had a bite of street-food and headed back to the hostel. We met a girl from Singapore named Sasha and a guy from the UK named Ben and all decided that lunch was in order. We walked down the street known as Soi Nana (soi is the Thai word for "lane") looking for a Thai place. Since Soi Nana is one of the red-light districts, it was mostly Western places. We found one down the end that looked to be both Western and Thai and stopped in there. My soup was absolutely delicious - I just love Thai food. We chatted for a while after we were finished, deciding that we should go to the weekend market. It's a huge conglomeration of shops - 9,000 - that is only open on the weekend. We made a quick stop back at the hostel to look for Sasha's friend Daniel, but all we found was a note saying "Gone to the weekend market to look for you." I suspected they were never going to find each other there. We took the Skytrain (the metro-rail) and upon arrival were swept away into the sea of market-goers. It was very busy with people buying everything from pots and pans to puppies. Amazingly, people actually did seem to buy puppies at the market which was bizarre to me for some reason. There was also furniture, beads, incense, shoes, clothes, and food food food. I got me one of those awesome looking coconuts where they hack the top off and stick a straw in it. The juice wasn't as sweet or rich as I was hoping, but it was fun to drink. Chuck got some kind of juice that had a salty-sweet taste that he didn't like so I finished that off for him. I witnessed the horrible murder of about 10 large shrimp as we were walking through one of the food sections. The woman loaded them all up in a wire contraption that snapped closed and with antennae wiggling, lowered them into a tub of boiling hot oil. Eeeps! Nothing like fresh seafood. After walking around for a bit, Ben and Sasha decided they wanted to do some more serious shopping. We decided it was way too hot to continue wandering around aimlessly at the market, so we split and went our separate ways. As Chuck and I made our way back to the Skytrain I popped in a shop and attempted to haggle for a shirt but the seller was having none of that. I didn't quite understand why, but we've come to learn that some people in Thailand just do not want to haggle with you. Their loss. Oh, and needless to say, we never found Daniel at the market. Back at the hostel we met some new people - an energetic Swedish guy, a spunky-once-you-get-to-know-her Japanese girl, a boisterous American girl, and a calm American guy. The American guy was full of good conversation because he was teaching English in South Korea. He told us about some of the experiences he's had there, such as the parents intense concern with the perfection of their child's English, and how the students will be very respectful when one of the Korean teachers is present, but test their boundaries when it's just him teaching. It was nice to meet so many people for a change.

We went for another massage of the 20th. This time we chose the oil massage instead of the Thai. It wasn't as rough as the Thai massage, but my neck was still sore from all that grinding the previous day which made that part unpleasant. Otherwise it was like a softer, more slippery Thai massage. The masseuses giggled a lot when we gave them a tip and left. We still wonder what that was about. Nervous giggling? Did we make some silly faux pas? Why the giggles?? Oh well. One of the street vendors right outside our hostel was selling Jackfruit and I decided to go ahead and try some. A lot of the fruits in Thailand are exotic to my Western tastes, so I decided I'd better get cracking and start trying as many as i could. The Jackfruit is a bit special because it's the largest fruit in the world - It can grow to be practically the size of an adult person. I was completely thrown off when I saw the fruits though because they are just two inch long pieces of bright yellow deliciousness. Here I thought it was supposed to be the largest fruit in the world. Turns out, the giant Jackfruit you pick off the tree is filled with all these small yellow bits. The vendor sits there with a modestly sized Jackfruit and cuts them all out, one by one. Then I come along and purchase a little baggie of the fruits and stuff them all down my gullet. They're quite good! They taste like banana candy, but not sickeningly sweet like candy would be. Don't get me wrong, they are certainly sweet, but pleasantly so. Good stuff! After a shower we headed to the river taxi. We got a Thai Apple on the way. It doesn't have as much flavor as a regular apple and contains a lot of water. The texture was a bit like a dense watermelon. We water taxied and walked to Khao San Road again, against our better judgment. The goal was to talk someone down to a reasonable price for a Thai Coke t-shirt. Chuck was wanting to get a t-shirt that had the Coca-Cola logo written on it in Thai, and they had quite a few places on Khao San Road. However, no one was willing to be reasonable! It was rather fustrating and we left feeling a little dejected. We headed towards Pier 9 and on the way saw a street lined with vendors off to our right. We decided a detour was in order and headed down that road. It was all amulet vendors selling small religious trinkets and statues. Quite a few buyers were meticulously inspecting the goods with those small magnifying glasses made for looking at gems stones. There were also quite a few monks doing some shopping which blew my naive mind because I always envisioned monks as having no worldly possessions. Of course, that is a bit silly once one stops to think about it because they are human just like the rest of us. Besides, religious trinkets are quite reasonable possessions for a monk, yes? Not to mention, I honestly know nothing about Buddhism so I have no room to be making any assumptions about how they're "supposed" to live. I do really like seeing those deep orange robes and shaved heads for some reason. I suppose they've always sort of been the most peaceful of all the religious symbols in my head. I'm not sure, but I don't think there are too many instances where a bunch of Buddhists have waged bloody war against some other religious group. There are a few rules I had to keep in mind if I wanted to be respectful though. Number one was to not touch the monks. Why? Because I'm a lady. Bah, I hate those rules, but I can deal with it as an outsider. I guess women are seen as a temptation, so if you touch a monk as a woman it's disrespectful to their choice to live without worldly temptation. I'm not sure I worded that quite right, but I think that's the gist of it. So I tried to steer clear and give them a wide berth if our paths were bringing us in close proximity. In all fairness, they did the same to me though as well. At the end of the road the market changed from amulets and religious trinkets to food and clothes. This market was more like what I was hoping to find in Bangkok. It was filled with mostly Thai people and the clothes weren't all the same tourist t-shirts as found on Khao San Road. I found a good deal on some tank tops and got two for 100 baht ($3 US). We tried to haggle for an even lower price with the young woman manning the stand but she just giggled politely and told us "Fixed price." Next we found the best pork in Bangkok at a street vendor. I'm not sure how it was cooked, but the thin meat was soft and juicy and coated in a deliciously flavored batter. They chopped up a slice of the porky goodness and tossed it into a plastic baggie with some tasty crunchie crumbs of some kind to add delicious texture. Oh, and don't let me forget the sticky rice. Sticky rice is "da bomb." After that snack we headed south towards Pier 9 and got some durian on the way. Durian is a special fruit, so let me take the time to describe that as well. I realize I've described quite a few foods so far (I hope no one's hungry) but I have a thing for food, so I think it's all worth the description! Especially durian. So, durian and jackfruit look really similar before they're split open and the meaty fruit is ripped out. They are both a bulbous round shape, green-brown, covered in spines and spikes, roughly the same size (although jackfruit has the potential to get much bigger). When you do get around to popping them open though, the sweet scent of candy bananas comes out of the jackfruit, while the durian emits the musky scent of... well, it's indescribable really. It just doesn't smell all that pleasant, although I don't really find it disgusting. The fruit, once it's dug out of its spikey husk, is just a pale yellow lump. And the taste is similar to the smell, but better somehow - although the texture of the durian I ate was quite mushy and not very appetizing. It's a really strange fruit and everyone seems to have a different reaction to it, which is why it's so peculiar. I also read that they grow and ripen up in the top of the durian tree and if you happen to be walking around underneath and very unlucky you could have one fall on your head and possibly kill you! I hear they put warning signs under the trees sometimes. Anyways, long story short: the durian was interesting, but not really my thing. We made it down to Pier 9, passing more shopping monks and vendors selling all kinds of random goods. We got some chicken feet, more pork (not as good), and some herbal juices. The roselle flavor was earthy but nice, while my grass juice was quite grassy. I felt instantly healthier after drinking it though, so it was all worth it, I'm sure. As for the chicken feet, they were just as disgusting as I thought they would be. In fact, I'd say they were more disgusting than I expected. Little bones covered in slimey, rubbery skin. Blech. I don't recommend them at all. After the feet we made the crazy decision to walk all the way to the MRT (subway) from Pier 9, which is a few miles. Although we had been walking for much of the day already, we decided to keep going - perhaps we can thank that grass juice I had and my new-found health for the decision. By the time we got to the MRT I was about ready to burst into tears for the pain in my feet and legs, but on the bright side we got to walk through some of Chinatown and see the gritty, dirty, busy and lively markets in there. I liked the ticketing system on the MRT because they give you a plain black chip (like a poker chip) that you swipe to get through the entry barrier and then drop in a coin slot at the exit barrier. I felt like the reusablilty factor was environmentally friendly. We did even more walking from the MRT station back to the hostel, but on the bright side we got Chuck's Coke shirt for cheap from a street vendor. Walking has it's benefits sometimes, despite the foot pain. We also saw a number of little tables selling Viagra and Cialis. So, for no-prescription erectile dysfunction drugs, come to Thailand! No guarantee that they actually work... Dinner that night was super spicy. Probably the spiciest meal of our lives (although I think my friend's Thai mother has made curry even spicier for us in the past). Spicy seafood salad and spicy sukiyaki. It hurt too much to eat more than two spoonfuls, then I had to wait five minutes to be able to stand eating more. Man, Thai food can be so spicy. Chuck loves it. Me, not so much.

We decided to finally go and see the Grand Palace on the 21st. We took the Skytrain to the river and took the big boat up to Pier 9 from there. Of course, being surrounded by all the delicious food and having empty stomachs we partook (is that a word?) in some skewered meats. We tried some Thai hot dogs and some sort of ground meat packed onto a skewer. Then we were off to the nearby Grand Palace. They are very picky there about respectful dress, so we got called out by the fashion police. Chuck's below-the-knee shorts were too short and my shawl was not sufficient for covering my shoulders. We weren't the only ones though - just about everyone had to fix their clothing, and because of this they had a whole building dedicated to dressing people appropriately. We waited in line along with everyone else to get our loner pants and shirt. You just pay a deposit fee for each piece of clothing and then when they're returned you get your money back. It's a pretty decent process and I was even half tempted to abscond with my borrowed shirt - it was comfy! Once inside the Palace (we paid a hefty 350 baht per person to get in) we were wowed by the sights. Every building was fantastically gorgeous with shining mirrors of every color captured in the thick coat of gold that hugged the roofs, pillars, doorways, and windows. Temple entrances were decorated with glittering dragons or stylized guards. One chedi (a decorative spire commonly found at many temples) was completely covered in small gold mirrors. They were so clear and shiny that you could feel the heat of the sun's reflection and it actually hurt your eyes to stand too close. The main temple is home to a famous jade Buddha statue who is placed at the very top of the mass of decorations at the back of the building. He was much smaller than I was expecting - all the Buddhas I'd seen in temples had been larger than life - but being jade is a good excuse to not be so huge. They would have had to find quite a huge chunk of jade to make him as big as the typical temple Buddha. It was all very grand though, with his shawl of white LED lights wrapped around his shoulders and the numerous decorations made of delicate real gold set around him. There were signs posted warning people not to point their feet towards the Buddha because in Thai culture the feet are the dirtiest and most unholy part of the body. So pointing the soles of your feet or your toes at the Buddha is disrespectful. It's also supposedly disrespectful in everyday life, but we saw plenty of people sitting in positions that directed their feet towards other people and no one got offended. I suspect it's one of those rules that is followed more closely with more important guests. So we were careful to sit with our feet pointed away from the Buddha. We also got a kick out of the big statues that were guarding each entrance to the temple complex. And the wall that surrounded all the buildings was painted with golden scenes of gods, kings, and common people doing everyday and extraordinary deeds. Outside the Palace walls we were able to visit a few small museums showcasing various weapons and other artifacts from Thailand's past. It was a lot to see and after we were finished we were ready to go back to the hostel. We grabbed some skewered meat, rambutans, and mangosteens from Pier 9 on the way back. Now for some more fruit descriptions! Rambutans are fun because they're covered in inch-long flexible spines with a little curl at the end. They're a red-orange color and peel open like lychees do. They also taste similar to lychees with an earthy sweetness. The pit in the middle is the only downer because a thin layer of wood sticks to the fruit when you tear it away from the pit. I like them despite this, but Chuck on the other hand isn't a big fan. The mangosteens are covered with a thick, but soft deep purple rind that you peel away with a few pokes of your fingers. Inside is an almost white fruit segmented like an orange. It doesn't taste anything like an orange though. Each slice has it's own seed that you have to gnaw the slightly tangy, sweet meat off of. They're good but not my favorite fruit. After a few hours rest at the hostel we went to our favorite little cart restaurant (the one we ate at our very fist night) and then walked around the streets trying to find some gourmet insects. There were a lot of lovely young ladies sitting in bars or standing on the street making eyes at any guy that passed. Some of the more aggressive ladies might even ask in a thick Thai accent "Where you from?" as we passed by. One girl we walked past a few times seemed to have an eye specifically for Chuck! Despite all the activity on the streets with food carts and street wares, we found no insects. We did, however, find a grocery store. For some reason that was pretty exciting to me. We were especially wide-eyed at the candy aisle. There were all kinds of goodies that we hadn't seen before, as well as a lot we had. We ended up with a few tasty treats and some much-needed shampoo and conditioner, then back to the hostel. Later that night Ben came back from his night on the town to tell us that he'd found some insects where he had been. Go figure.

We tried to keep the 22nd cheap by staying near the hostel. We met an incredibly nice girl from the Netherlands named Carlijn who spent some months in Australia and thus had an Australian accent. In fact, when I first met her I thought she was an Australian! Carlijn, Chuck and I all ended up taking the river taxi down a few stops to the Jim Thompson House. Jim Thompson was an American ex-pat who loved Thailand so much that he decided to live there and set up a silk factory. He eventually decided to make himself a home by taking six traditional Thai houses, have them dismantled, shipped to Bangkok, and then put them all together again to make one big house. The resulting house is quite beautiful with it's simple lacquered wood and surrounding lush garden. He then proceeded to get himself lost or eaten during a trek in the jungle, or perhaps he just up and secretly left for a new life. No one knows! All that's left of him are his famous silk factories and his house. The only way to see it is with a tour guide, which is included in the price of the ticket. Our guide was pretty a pretty cool Thai chick who had all her lines well rehearsed, right down to the jokes. She showed us one statue that they determined was made by a Chinese man because the eyes were slanted. As she said this she pulled back the corners of her eyes, apparently mimicking a Chinese person, and giggled. Seeing as the group was all white people we weren't sure whether it was actually appropriate to laugh at this because I think it would be considered racist in the West. Instead there was a bit of nervous laughter and sideways glances to check the reactions of the other people in the group. She told us that the reason there are six inch steps between rooms in many Thai houses is because it keeps bad spirits out. They're not able to get over the step because they slink along the ground rather than walk. At the end of the tour she showed us the large stingray that lives in one of the small pools outside the house. It was pretty random, that stingray. We relaxed at the hostel for much of the day, but went out again with Carlijn in the evening. Our mission was to find those bugs. We went to Soi Nana and to our surprise, found the insect vendor right there at the beginning of the road. Feeling very apprehensive we shuffled our feet a bit before finally asking for some of the grasshoppers, the crickets, and one giant cockroach. To my surprise he filled a little bag with many more grasshoppers and crickets than we were ever going to eat. Luckily the cockroach was sold in singles. He spritzed them all with a salty, soy-sauce spray before handing them over. Still feeling nervous about actually going through with eating them, we walked down the street passing by prostitutes and lady-boys as we went. We didn't want to just plop down and munch on grasshoppers in the middle of the busy-ness, so we kept going. We eventually decided that there were going to be some people nearby no matter where we stopped so we just chose a place and whipped out our bugs. And our cameras. First was a cricket. It took a few moments to build up to actually eating it, but all the fuss wasn't necessary. Being deep-fried they had lost whatever meaty chewiness they might have had and were more like hollow oil sponges. And the soy-sauce spray was quite salty, covering up any other flavors that might have been there. The overall flavor was a stale oiliness. Not good, but not horrid. The grasshopper was about the same, just a bit bigger. We got a bunch of photos to prove we had actually eaten them. Too soon it was the roach's turn. The roach had been my thing so it was all on me to eat the bad-boy. It took me a few moments to build up enough courage to just take him out of the bag. His stiff little legs and beady eyes were rather horrifying. I didn't know quite what to do and the three of us were standing around looking at the beast with nervous chuckles when a Thai woman walked by, made some sort of exclamation and laughed. We proudly held up our other baggies of bugs making her laugh some more and say something in Thai. I made motions as if I were pulling off the legs of my roach and looked at her questioningly. She nodded back and made the same motion in confirmation. A confused multi-language goodbye was said and she continued on her way, still looking quite amused. I was forced to turn my attention back to the roach. I plucked off a leg and seeing a bit of meat on the end, stuck that bit in my mouth and chewed it off. I tried to do it quickly and without thinking so I might avoid being too disgusted. It actually tasted a bit like dry chicken and that got my hopes up. Meanwhile, Chuck and Carlijn were making obligatory faces of disgust. I plucked the rest of the legs off. Seeing as the little bit I'd already tasted wasn't so bad I had an easier time plopping the roach in my mouth head first and tearing it in half. Yeah, it wasn't good. I mean, it wasn't hideously horrible, but it wasn't good. It was meatier than the other bugs, but the meat was dried out. The shell of the body was kind of like chewing on paper. There was still a bit of chicken taste, but it was accompanied by some other bitter, musky flavor. I opted not to eat the rest of the roach and handed it around for whoever else to try if they wanted. Chuck took a bite and thought just about the same thing that I did. We immediately ate a pack of mentos after that. All in all, a good experience and a tick mark on my "Things To Do Before I Die" list. Later that night when we went back to the hostel we offered our bags of leftover bugs to the guy who works the hostel at night. Not knowing what they were he leaned in for a closer look and suddenly jumped back as far as his chair would allow, a look of horror on his face. His laughter was almost fearful as he told us "No, no, no - I don't eat bugs!" It was pretty hilarious.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

New Delhi III

After leaving Ajmer we had to spend a few more days in New Delhi getting our Thailand visas together. Our hotel was happy to see us again and everyone gave us friendly, enthusiastic greetings. We also found out that the hotel has wireless. Since when, we do not know. They didn't have any working wireless internet when we checked in the first time! Better late than never though, right? So we were able to look up all our hotel and visa info for Thailand up in the comfort of our little room. We booked our plane tickets and made reservations at the cheapest and most decent looking place we could find, then printed out the visa applications. We tuk-tuked to the visa headquarters where the bored security guard seemed to think we were hardly any threat and let us through. We dropped our applications and passports off and that was that. A few days later - surprise! We had Thailand visas! Yay! It's always nice when things go according to plan.

As for interesting things that happened while we were there... Let's see... When we went to the bank to replenish our money supply we had to go through the usual little security point. The lady-guard checks ladies' belongings and the man-guard checks the men's. She glanced in my bag and nodded "Okay," but before I walked off she gave me a curious smile, looked at my lip ring while motioning to her lip and said "No problem?" I smiled back and said "No, no problem." Then I pointed at my nose and looked at her nose ring and said "No problem?" She just laughed. I thought it was pretty funny. We encountered the most aggressive beggars yet near our hotel one day. They were about 5 to 7 years old and dirty as a pig pen. They chat-chat-chat at you and follow behind you pulling on your clothing and hands or arms - anything they can tug. Of course, telling them "No" does not work. One of the kids followed us into our hotel, still on our heels and asking for money as we started up the stairs! As soon as the hotel staff figured out that we weren't actually trying to lure beggar children to our bedroom they quickly shooed him back outside. On another day we got to experience the post office. I had gotten a few Christmas-like presents for my family and I was long past due on sending them home. Once we found the post office we were directed to a place on the complete other side of the building to get a box for our stuff. It was just a little corner-shop that sold random things, but one of the random things was old boxes that they had received their goods in. I was very happy to be using recycled packaging! They packed all my stuff in it and taped down all the edges, then we headed back to the post office where we were once again directed somewhere else to have the box "stitched." This part was very cool - a guy took our box and wrapped a big piece of beige fabric around it and proceeded to stitch up all the edges using some thick thread and a huge needle. He was quite fast and was done in less than 10 minutes. And the package looked so cool! It kinda looked like an actual present now! Then I wrote the address directly on the fabric with black permanent marker, glued a packing slip to the back, and sent it on its merry way. I thought it was a fun way to package something. That's about it for what we did while we were in Delhi. We mostly relaxed and got a few things done.

On the 17th we check out of the hotel and taxied to the airport to catch our flight to Thailand. Getting in the airport turned out to be a pain because we hadn't printed our tickets out before hand. We were sent to about four different offices and buildings before someone managed to pull our info up on an incredibly ancient computer and print us a little ticket slip. Of course, once in the airport we still had to stand in line to get our actual tickets and we still had to go through security. I don't know why they don't just let people in the airport. Whatever. It wasn't until this point that I suddenly realized I didn't have my bangles. In a slow wave of growing sadness I realized I had left them on the bureau back at the hotel. There was no way we could go back and get them. They were lost! I had spent so much time and effort in looking for just the right bangles only to leave them in a newspaper-wrapped tube on the dresser. I was so completely disappointed! But we boarded our plane and the closer we got to Thailand the less upset I became. Bangkok, here we come!