Sunday, March 28, 2010

Bangkok II

Our bus from Kanchanaburi deposited us somewhere on the edges of Bangkok, leaving us to pay some lucky taxi driver 250 baht to get back to the hostel. To his credit, it did end up being a long drive, so maybe it was worth it. At least he was pretty nice and laughed a lot while trying to teach us some Thai. We went back to the same hostel we had been at before so everyone was all "Hey! Welcome back!" For dinner in the evening we went to our favorite street restaurant. After a few minutes three hostel-mates show up and join us. One was Femke, who would end up becoming one of our good friends, but on this particular occasion we hadn't quite gotten to know each other yet. After a few more minutes four more hostel-mates show up. So we ended up dragging two of the fold-up tables together and shoving all nine of us in for dinner. It was a bit crazy with so many people, but fun. Some of the others decided to go out for even more fun after dinner, but Chuck and I wished them a good time and headed back to the hostel. Later that night I woke up an hour into my sleep with the blasted tooth pains. I tried the swish-and-floss technique that had worked the first time I got the pain and it worked, but ten minutes after I laid back down it flared up again with a vengeance. It seemed that the natural increase in pressure to my tooth when I laid down made it hurt like a crazy mo-fo. I tried sleeping sitting up against the wall, but that didn't work so I went out into the common area. Although it was 2:00 AM there were still five or six people partying and playing pool. I got out my laptop and resigned myself to staying awake all night. I had a really bad flare-up at one point that, once again, made me consider that I might have to go to the hospital if it didn't die away within the next 10 minutes. It did though, and once everyone else had gone to bed I rested my head against the wall and tried to sleep again. For some reason I can sleep sitting up well enough on buses or planes, but not in a decently comfortable chair at the hostel. So annoying.

After staying up all night I was ready to go to the dentist as soon as I thought they might be open in the morning (which was the 31st - New Years Eve). I woke Chuck at 8:00 AM telling him I was going to the dentist. He, of course (and thankfully), insisted on coming with me. We had seen a dentist office just around the corner so headed there. Their sign said they weren't open until 9:00 AM. Blah. So we showered, went to the optometrist to get the nose pads on my glasses replaced since they had fallen off, and got some good pain killers from the pharmacy. Chuck decided that he likes the foreign pharmacies where the pharmacist helps you find what will work best for your condition. Back in Europe Chuck had been annoyed with them, but as time has gone by we've realized that it's actually pretty convenient and helpful sometimes. For example - I told the pharmacist that I needed pain killers and he reached in one direction. As I continued with "for a tooth ache," he switched directions and reached for a different medication saying that I would need something stronger for a tooth ache. I might have gotten something less effective if he hadn't been around to help me! By this time it was after 9:00 and we headed back to the dentist. Strangely, they still weren't open. So we rang the bell and someone was kind enough to come out and see what we needed. Turns out the dentist would be closed until January 4th for the New Years celebrations! I couldn't wait until then! She recommended I go to the hospital if it was that bad. So it looked like I was going to the hospital despite all my attempts to avoid it! At the hospital we were directed to their dental department (luckily they had a dedicated dental department) where they were able to fit me in for an "emergency checkup." Some of you might be wondering about the quality of hospitals and healthcare in Thailand. I can't tell you much about that in general, but I can tell you about my own experience. The hospital we went to was called Bumrungrad International Hospital. It was very modern with large, shiny silver pillars, walls of glass, and even valet parking. It looked like a 5-star hotel met a hospital and had a baby. As for service, I personally thought it was good quality. The doctor asked a series of questions while poking and prodding around in my mouth, trying to figure out which tooth was the problem. In the end she took the blunt end of her metal tooth-pick instrument and tapped on the three teeth in question, leaving me no doubt about which one was the problem. My back right molar. It definitely rang with that strange, overwhelming pain that is unique to tooth aches. Next was the x-ray. I was surprised that they did their x-rays differently than how I've experienced them in the States. I don't know what ya'lls x-ray experiences have been, but in the States I've always had to bite down on this strange contraption they've jammed into my mouth, hooked to a little plastic circle used for aiming the x-ray in the right spot. All I know is that those things always hurt like hell inside my mouth. The edges I'm biting onto always jab deeply into the tender tissue that covers the inside of my mouth and it hurts. At the dentist in Thailand they replaced that torture device with a simple 1.5 inch square of plastic (although I'm sure there's something metal in there too to block the x-rays from going through the whole of your mouth and making a muddled x-ray). How was it kept in place? My finger. They positioned the square just so against my tooth and then had me stick my finger on it to hold it in place while they took the x-ray. Ingenious! So simple, and more importantly, not painful! It was funny going through the process though, because it was so foreign. Most of the nurses spoke in broken English or had thick accents, so half the time I was at a loss as to what they were asking me to do. I tried my best to read body language and pick out key words, but sometimes I just stared or nodded at them dumbly. But good news: the dentist figured out my problem! An old filling had developed a little hole. Bad news: I would need a root canal. Worse news: they had no openings available for the next 8 days. This actually scared me. The thought that I might be unable to sleep for the next 8 days and end up in an ER with sleep deprivation or something was really unpleasant. She did prescribe me some antibiotics and pain killers though. The pain killer was called Idarac (I think it has a different name in the US, but it still wasn't something I had heard of) and it did less for the pain than the ibuprofen we had bought at the pharmacy. But at least I was scheduled to be fixed, even if it was over a week away. Being New Years Eve, I had a sleepless night ahead of me anyways. Because we were planning on going out that night we kept it simple during the day by staying in. That night we joined our hostel for the New Years pub crawl, which was really the same as the regular pub crawl. Dave led everyone to the same places and went to the same strip shows. Since Chuck and I had already seen it we hung out at the pool bar on the corner, listening to the live music that was being played. Midnight was anticlimactic. All us farangs were gathered at the end of the road having our own, personal New Years countdown. At midnight we all cheered and hugged and kissed cheeks, etc. Meanwhile, the clubs around us randomly popped balloons and that was about it. Business continued as usual. Soooo not exciting. Looking back we wish we had gone to Center Point where they had a stage set up and did a countdown. Ah well. After midnight, we all piled in taxis and went to Spicy club, just like last time. We didn't get ushered out and across the street this time which was a bit of a bummer. I liked the smaller bar much better and I just couldn't get into the dancing mood in the huge room that was Spicy club. We (as in all the hundreds of people at the club) did get a good show when some white girl jumped up on one of the ledges and danced real dirty-like for 30 minutes. She had a real talent for bending over and showing off her thong-covered bits to the crowd, making everyone cheer. She wasn't the only one dancing on the ledges of the club - we noticed two people from the hostel up there at one point (strangers until that night), making out in a drunken stupor as they attempted dance. We later saw them in the bathrooms (they weren't together in the bathroom, they were just taking a pee-break), right next to where we were sitting. The guy came in a timely manner and proceeded to wait for the girl. And wait. And wait. I felt bad for him, so eventually I went in and checked on her. The ladies bathroom attendant saw me looking a bit lost as I stared at the stalls and knew just who I was after. She pointed me to the correct door with an apologetic but unmistakable look of "please get her out of here." I knocked, and then decided to just go in. Luckily, she wasn't in the midst of taking a dump or anything and was just sitting on the floor hugging the toilet. I wondered what I had gotten myself into as I dragged her to her feet and lumbered us out of the bathroom, nearly falling over a fair few times. She was amazingly drunk. Her make-out partner also had a look of "what have I gotten myself into" as I led her to him. He asked us in whispers to please help him, and being the cold, heartless person that I am I said "No way man! You're on your own." Maybe that's harsh, but I wasn't about to make myself responsible for a girl who is old enough to take responsibility for herself. I did, however, keep my eyes on her while the guy went off to try and find reinforcements. She was wobbling continuously in her stool and nearly fell off a few times. Then she headed back to the bathroom where she sat for a good 15 minutes until I felt badly enough for the bathroom attendant to go and fetch her back out. Eventually, Dave came back with the poor-guy-who-had-been-making-out-with-her-and-thus-felt-responsible-for-her and they limped her out and into a taxi back to the hostel. I think the guy went back with her, which I sort of had to respect because he was nice enough not to just ditch her as unwanted baggage. He probably didn't get what he was hoping to get, but who knows - maybe they hit it off again later in a less drunk state. Sometime after the excitement of all the drunk people died down Chuck and I got bored and left, going to bed after our nightly rituals (tooth brushing and pajamas). Happy New Years!

The 1st of the year was nice, but boring. We sat around all day being lazy! Yay! Over the next few days we indulged in everyday things like restaurants, shopping malls, arcades, and movies. We saw Avatar in 3D which was good. Thai movie theaters have an interesting pre-movie feature: the National Anthem. Sometime before or after the previews the words "Please stand for the National Anthem" flash across the screen. Everyone in the theater stands and the National Anthem of Thailand is played along with clips of the King and the royal family doing different things, as well as clips of people showing their undying adoration for him. The people in the theater weren't standing at attention or anything so severe as that, but they stood straight and tall and payed attention to the screen for the most part. It was really quite strange and interesting. I guess the Pledge of Allegiance that many Elementary Schools recite might be comparable. Really interesting. And Avatar was pretty good. I went into the movie having heard all the hype but feeling very unconvinced. I thought that it can't be so good as to be setting new precedents and standards for the movie industry, like they're claiming. And it wasn't, but it was still really enjoyable. The 3D effects were pretty incredible. The glasses were the most hi-tech 3D glasses I've ever used, and I think they made a serious difference in the experience. Usually 3D movies are really cheezy with bad 3D. This was very good 3D with very good graphics, which were beautiful and the environments and creatures they created caught my imagination. Why am I writing a review of the movie here?? Sorry, moving on!

We went to that sushi restaurant - Sukishi - again. Along with sushi they do Korean BBQ which we did for the first time. It's like the melting pot with a little grill. They bring out your chosen selection of raw meats and then you slap them onto the grill where they quickly cook for your gleeful consumption. It's so much fun! For me at least. I'm sure someone out there would be annoyed at having to cook their own food, but I say they're just spoil sports. Why is this style of eating not in the US?? Maybe we're all too lazy to cook our own food... Hah.

We went to Wat Hualamphong on the 5th where we met an incredibly vocal and friendly cat. The temple was nice too. We hung out with Femke more and more. I started to realize that her and I have a lot in common and understand each other pretty well. It was so nice to really connect with another person for once! And having someone to hang out with in places other than the hostel was nice. We all found a place with delicious margaritas and went to get tipsy one night - it was a lot of fun.

On the 6th it rained all afternoon causing the streets to flood a few inches. Traffic slowed to even more of a crawl than usual. It was also my Dad's birthday, so Happy Birthday to Dad! My tooth pain was manageable as well. I would take an ibuprofen and an Idarac at bed time and it kept me pain free. Looked like I would be able to wait it out until the 8th when my root canal was scheduled.

On the 7th we decided to do something touristy again. We wanted to go to the Forensic Museum located inside a local hospital, but once we arrived it turned out to be closed for renovations. We had taken the river taxi, walked to the pier (where we got pork from the awesome pork vendor), crossed the big river, and asked five different people at the hospital where the museum was. Then it turns out to be closed. Gah! After much annoyed discussion we decided to go to the famous Wat Pho, home to the giant laying Buddha. And huge he was. I mean, he was like... as long as a school cafeteria. I know that's not descriptive at all, but I'm so bad with lengths. I'm sure Wikipedia could fill you in if you're truly interested. And he was bright gold. And the soles of his feet were beautifully inlaid with mother of pearl. Along one side of the Buddha was a line of metal pots about the size of those plastic pumpkin buckets that are manufactured en masse at Halloween. People were lined up and moving methodically down the row dropping a penny in each pot. The clink-clink-clink of the pennies meeting their bronze brethren filled the whole temple. It sounded like it was raining coins. It was a nice sound. We explored the rest of the complex with all its statues, smaller temples, and chedis. The architectural style was a little different from the other temples we had seen. I've never been to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, but the look of Wat Pho reminded me of it. That night I ate a bad chicken skewer and woke up in the middle of the night to barf. Other than that - good day! Note that this is the only time I've gotten sick in Thailand. All that unsterility that is associated with the street carts is a bunch of BS if you ask me.

The 8th was my long awaited root canal. We arrived at the hospital-dentist 10 minutes early, and to my surprise was called in five minutes before the scheduled appointment. She didn't waste any time. Immediately after applying a topical anesthetic to my gums, she took her big novocaine needle and numbed me up. Then she went straight into the drilling of my tooth, no waiting necessary. I kept being afraid that I wasn't numb enough yet, but to my surprise the numbing-stuff works faster than I thought it did. So once again, to compare this to my US dental experiences, in the US there is a a lot more wait time involved. In the lobby, you wait. After the topical novocaine, you wait. After the shot, you wait while the doctor leaves, probably to attend to another patient. Meanwhile the whole side of your face goes numb, jaw to chin to nose. My Thai novocaine-shot only made my tooth area go numb - the side of my face was hardly affected. My chin and nose didn't feel any of it. And you know what? I still didn't feel any pain! Imagine that. The doctor left the room for only 10 minutes as an antiseptic ointment was soaking into my gaping, hollowed tooth. Otherwise she was with me for the full 1.5 hours. She drilled and scraped and poked and I had to wear a strange metal contraption around my tooth that was attached to a rubber screen that was stretched across my whole mouth. I drooled all over the place and was constantly told to move my head up and left. I tried hard to be a good patient, but my head apparently just wouldn't stay in the right place. After the procedure I was informed that I would need to come back four more times, over the course of a month to complete the procedure. Wait, what? My past experience has taught me that root canals are a one time deal. Once again, this must be a difference between my Thai doctor and the doctors I've had in the US. After some discussion she decided she could finish it in two weeks, with just three more visits. Since we wanted to stay in Bangkok for a bit this seemed like a good excuse. Besides, I was paying 14,000 baht ($420 US) for the procedure so I would be remiss not to use all my allotted visits - you know, get my moneys worth. The idea of having that big needle jabbed into my gums three more times wasn't nice though. After the root canal I decided some comfort food was in order: McDonald's. Don't judge. Then we went to MBK with Femke (our Hollander friend) and Tim (one of the Texan friends we hung out with in Kanchanaburi) to walk around and just hang out. Later in the evening Femke and I went to get a massage while Chuck and Tim went out to Khao San Road. When we met up with them again they had a pretty interesting story to tell. Apparently they were walking down a mostly deserted side road when they spotted some money blowing across the ground ahead of them. Of course, they basically dove at it and were flabbergasted to find that they were all 1,000 baht bills. Ten of them. That would be $300. Chuck took a moment to look around and see if anyone looked as if they were frantically searching for lost money, but the few people that were even on the road were calm and unawares. They each kept what they had picked up: 2,000 for Chuck and 8,000 for Tim. When it came to this part of the story I have to admit, I became internally upset. Leaving all issues of whether it was right to take it in the first place, I thought the polite and friendly thing to do would be to split it right down the middle. But... that apparently wasn't going to be an option. I just hoped that the 8,000 was well needed and would be going to pay for rent or some basic necessity when Tim got back home. He did e-mail Chuck later, filling him in a bit on his situation and apologizing, so that was cool. I guess it was well needed. Oh, and to celebrate we (Tim, Chuck, me, and a girl we had just met at the hostel) went to dinner at our favorite sushi/korean bbq restaurant. We split up after dinner and Chuck and I went to try and play DJ Max Technika, but the arcade had closed. So instead, we went to the bookstore where Chuck got himself a Thai language-learning workbook. He'd been getting pretty decent at some very basic Thai over the course of our trip, especially reading, so he wanted to try and learn even more. Besides, it's always nice to have something to do while on the train or bus.

The 9th was boring, although we did meet a Polish-Canadian named Ali. We invited her along with us on our plans for the 10th, which was an awesome day. So, on the 10th the three of us hopped on the MRT (subway) and got off at the Queen Sirikit Convention Center. There was a steady flow of people heading from the station to the building, so we followed them, as we were sure they would lead us to our ultimate destination: the Thailand Game Show! Yay! It was fairly crowded inside, and noisy to boot. We headed into a display room where they had a few old gaming systems and games on display: a Famicom, old school Gameboys, N64, a Ranma 1/2 game and Zelda were my favorites. Then we got to try out some of the newer, but relatively unknown games that have come out. There was one where you had to fit the parts of an animals skeleton into the silhouette of his body, like a puzzle. Another had you draw shapes and lines that translated into motion. You had to be clever with what and how you drew things in order to complete the level. Another was a racing game, but instead of a controller with buttons, there was a touch sensitive box. In order to make your character run you had to tap your fingers on the box, mimicking the pat-pat of running feet. That one looked hard to me. Next we experienced my favorite aspect of the whole game show: cosplay. If you don't know what this is, I'll inform you. It's dressing up as characters from stories. Typically the term "cosplay" is used in conjunction with people dressing up as anime and video game characters. There was a Cosplay Contest planned for later in the day, but some people were already there and dressed up or geiting ready. One well accepted aspect of the "cosplay scene" is photographs. It's well accepted that people will want to take pictures, so they frequently have a few poses ready, in the style of their character, and are more than happy to whip one out for your photographing pleasure. Some people had huge, fancy looking cameras and would take massive numbers of pictures of a character from every conceivable angle. I was too nervous to initiate a photo request, so I just waited until they were already in a pose for one of these “professionals” and then jump in to take my picture. Somewhere amidst the noise and crowds our new friend decided she would take off (which I could understand - it was pretty busy). Chuck and I decided to pay to go into the main expo part and see what they had on display. I can't even tell you what games there were. Everything was in Thai and everyone was Thai. I think we only saw three other white people there over the course of the day. We felt so immersed. The crowds doubled inside the expo area leaving us to push and shove ourselves through some spots. We waited in line to watch the trailer for a Thai game that is based on Thai history and met a nice guy. He was curious about where we were from and wondered what we were doing there. We exchanged e-mails and went our separate ways. After a while we needed a break though, so we headed down to the food court area. They have a fun way of working their food courts. You don't pay your money to the food-maker - you go to a coupon stand and get a credit card specific to that food court, loaded with however much money you want. You give that to the food maker and they swipe it quickly, handing it back. If there's money left over you go back to the coupon stand and exchange it for the remainder. Kinda cool. After lunch we just hung around the cosplayers and took pictures. Some of their costumes are incredible. Two guys came dressed as transformers and they were just... amazing. They were almost Hollywood-worthy costumes. One guy had a huge dragon costume, but he couldn't walk around while in it - just flap the wings and move the head. Another person came as Packman. He was entertaining to watch because all the other characters had fun being eaten by him, or pretend to fight him off. We headed back into the expo area when I though the cosplay contest would be starting, only to find ourselves watching a very weird Dragon Ball Z concert. Dragon Ball Z is a long-running, extremely popular anime. So popular, apparently, that they have concerts dedicated to it where a middle-aged Japanese man in a tight, black motorcyclist outfit jumps exuberantly around the stage while the crowds cheer him on in excitement. It was really strange and cool at the same time. Needless to say, there was no cosplay contest right then. Turned out we would have to wait another few hours if we wanted to see it and since we were tired and had plenty of pictures of all the costumes already, we decided to leave. It was a very cool experience. Oh, we even saw the guy who had told us about the game show in the first place. I mentioned him back when we were in Bangkok for the first time. He had talked to us and helped us when we were first learning to play DJ Max Technika at the arcade. Small world, eh? Well, it's not surprising really, but still nice that he came to talk to us and say hi.

On the 11th we entertained ideas of staying for a month in Bangkok. We headed to the very end of the Skytrain line and beyond to look at a place. That was way too far so we did some deeper research and found a bunch of really good places not too far from the Siam and MBK area (which is basically the center of Bangkok). Then we decided we'd better check out Chiang Mai before settling down in one spot for a month. So many changes of mind in one day!

From the 12th of January and onward, what we did is just a mishmash in my head. We did a lot of nothing sprinkled with a few actual things. We had one or two really good philosophical and political conversations with hostel-mates that kept us awake until 5:00 AM. We did a decent amount of drinking on the hostel's front "porch." We met a really cool Russian guy who has the same political ideas as Chuck (which is pretty uncommon in and of itself - add in that he's Russian (although has lived in America a long time) and that we're all in Thailand and it's crazy-bizarre).

I went to the zoo one day, all by my lonesome. Chuck was in an anti-zoo mood, so I got to go by myself. The zoo was decent and I think I was even hit on by a cute Kenyan guy who was performing in the acrobatics show. I was a bit appalled at the elephants who were tethered to five foot chains, pacing back and forth, one step in each direction. They were just there for people to pay to feed, so I hoped their normal pen was much more spacious. All the animals were pretty active that day and I stood and watched the monkeys (I know "monkeys" is pretty broad, but I can't remember which kind they were) for about 10 minutes. There was also a pretty good nocturnal display with fairly active animals. And there was a temporary albino animals display with an albino crow, turtle, salamander, and a few others. Not so bad!

We went to see a free Muay Thai show (it's every Wednesday evening at MBK, if you're in the area) which was pretty cool. I enjoyed the fight between the muscled, tan French guy and the slightly hunch-backed, pale, scrawny Australian. I thought for sure that the Aussie was going down, but in the end he won. I think that fight came down to skill points. I guess the judges thought he earned himself more skill points (I just made that term up by the way - I have no idea how Muay Thai is scored or judged). The fight before them that was between to Thai guys came down to endurance. For the last round, the fighters bumped fists and walked around the ring - well, the loser staggered. He was so worn out by the final round that they both just agreed the other guy was the winner, no need to fight it out. There was also a fight between two women. Well, if I heard the announcer correctly it was more like a woman and a girl. One was 28 and the other supposedly 14. And she could have been 14 - she looked quite young. But she knew what she was doing and ended up the winner. I loved her face and the way she held herself. She was so calm and collected with an air of bad-assness that contradicted with her round face and squinting, happy eyes. I loved the rituals that the fighters went through before their match. Everyone had their own, but they frequently consisted of making some sort of prayer or acknowledgment in all four directions of the ring. The 28 year old woman did this by kneeling with a bowed head and then stretching in each direction from the center of the mat. The Australian guy touched his fist to all four corners of the ring making some sort of prayer for a few moments at each. Some took five minutes, others less than one. It was cool. We ate at a new restaurant that night. It was a cook-it-yourself place, like the Melting Pot or Sukishi (the Korean BBQ place), but with soup instead. A sukiyaki buffet. Man it was awesome! One wall was lined with little plastic boxes filled with slices of beef, pork, and chicken, mushrooms, noodles, seaweed, carrots, fish, wontons, eggs, cabbage, bok choy, etc. You take what you want (no limit - the only limit is a time limit of one hour) and drop it all in a little soup pot built into the table in front of your seat. Everyone has their own little pot and the ingredients simmer and make a tasty, tasty broth. It was great. Why do we not have this in the states?? I also got to try a century egg while there. There are many names for this type of egg, so it's best to just describe it. It's an egg that is wrapped in a special mixture of clay and then buried in the earth for... I dunno how long. Long enough that the white bit turns a deep translucent brown and the center turns a rich green-black. Something about the acidity of the clay keeps the egg from straight-up going bad, and instead creates this frightening looking delicacy. It's not nearly as bad as I expected though. It just tasted like an egg to be honest. I guess it was a bit more sulphury than usual, but it was just an egg. I did not, however, eat the whole thing. It's appearance is enough to turn the stomach.

Another day we went to a local hospital that was home to a forensic medical museum with one of our new friends, Evelyn. The museum was hauntingly impressive. The first room had a bunch of deformed babies in formaldehyde. One had a flat skull, another had developed with his intestines outside his body, another with his legs fused together like a mermaid, and another two were conjoined at the torso. Continuing on we saw some skeletal remains from victims who had perished in the Indonesian Tsunami, as well as from people who had been murdered, died in various other accidents, or died from cancer or something similar. I was amazed by how many lives must have been lost to fill the museum. They even had three full, upright, decaying bodies displayed behind glass, with metal pans underneath to collect the fluids and fats that were slowly seeping out of them. One had an english tag that stated he had been a murderer, sentenced to death. And there his body would apparently rot away, in the name of science. For all the few people who happened to stumble upon the hidden museum to see. It's strange how gruesome stuff is so fascinating. Fascinating and disturbing. There were rooms filled with multiple specimens of the trachea and tongue of someone who had choked, the lungs of a cancer patient, hearts of people with congenital defects, organs that had been shot through with a bullet, a hand that had been ripped apart in a car accident, more babies and fetuses that had died, a little person (that's the PC term now, right?) that had died and been split in half and preserved in formaldehyde to be studied. One of these small museums was right next to the school of medicine and we could see cloth shrouded bodies in the rooms beyond if we peeked through the doorway at just the right angle. It was quite an interesting day!

The 23rd was the day we left Bangkok for Chiang Mai. We had said our goodbyes to a few people from the hostel the night before, as well as to a Thai friend we had met a few weeks earlier. We passed her by whenever we went anywhere and had sat and had conversations in broke English and Thai quite a few times. She (being a bit melodramatic) was very sad to see us go and would make disapproving faces whenever the subject of our leaving was brought up. When it was leaving time, we caught a taxi with a girl from the hostel, but with traffic being as bad as it is in Bangkok we had to get out and walk the last 100 meters or risk missing the train. We opted for the AC sleeper car which turned out to be pretty decent and comfortable. We were awake for only a few hours of the train ride because it was an overnight trip. Sleeping is the best way to travel. Having an actual bed-like surface to sleep on is even better. By the time we woke up, we'd be just about in Chiang Mai!

Friday, March 19, 2010


We got off the train in Kanchanaburi at the river stop, right next to one of the famous sights: the Kwai River Bridge. This bridge is part of the Death Railway that runs from Bangkok, Thailand to Rangoon, Burma. It was built by Japan during WWII using the forced labor of about 180,000 Asian people and 60,000 POWs. The “death” part of it's name comes from the fact that about 90,000 of the Asian laborers and 16,000 of the POWs died during construction of the railway. And in fact, we had arrived in Kanchanaburi via the Death Railway. I believe the town holds a remembrance day of sorts once a year, honoring the forced sacrifice that went into creating it. After a few photos with the bridge in the fading sunlight, we went about figuring out how to get to the hostel we were going to stay at. With a sinking feeling I realized that the only form of public transportation were motorbike taxis. I had vowed I wouldn't be getting on one of those things because accidents are not uncommon by any means. I heard that in Bangkok 80% of traffic accident deaths were motorbike drivers. Or something like that... However, if I wanted to get to the Jolly Frog (the hostel), it looked like this was going to be the only way. Chuck haggled a deal with two motorbike taxis while I tried to figure out how I should sit with my giant backpack on my back. I usually see women riding side-saddle on the back of motorbikes, making me feel that straddling the machine behind the driver might be a little too intimate. On the other hand, I might just fall off with my backpack weighing so heavily behind me if I rode sideways. I had to make a split second decision, and in the end I chose to go side-saddle. It turned out to be a short ride (thank god), but I was so conscious of my frail mortality the whole way. There were so many things for me to focus on: don't wobble the bike, keep my feet out of the wheels, keep my feet off the ground, hold onto the seat and don't fall off, etc. I was just glad I arrived in one piece. The reception desk at the hostel was in the outdoor restaurant. While we were checking in we spotted some other travelers we had met in Bangkok having a bite to eat and drinking a three liter tower of beer. Friends, yay! We got a room for the incredibly cheap price of 290 baht a night (just under $9 US), dropped our bags off and joined the group: Tim, Kelly, and Sean. They were halfway through the beer tower and we happily helped them finish that off. And got another. And probably another... It was a good night.

Chuck woke feeling slightly sick the next morning and I chalked it up to a mild hangover. He wasn't so sure though. He thought perhaps he was actually sick - like a flu or cold. But we had made plans with the Texans (Tim, Kelly, and Sean are all from Texas) to go to the nearby Erawan Waterfalls and he pushed through and decided not to bail. First step was actually getting there. The falls were almost an hour away so we would need to hire a taxi for the day. We split up in three directions and each asked a taxi stand how much they charged. The cheapest one was 1000 baht, so that's who we chose. The taxi was a pickup truck with a wooden bench running along each side of the truck bed and a tin cover on top to block the sun. The drive was uneventful and after a boring hour we had arrived. The Erawan Waterfalls are kinda cool because there are seven tiers of falls making for a lovely hike up to the top. On our way to the first tier we saw a sign warning us of the monkeys in the area: "Beware a monkey steal your belonging." We had heard about this back in Bangkok. People said that if you weren't careful, monkeys would climb down the trees and make off with your stuff. This was hilarious to me, so I was hoping we would get to see some monkey thievery while there. At the first tier we changed into our swim suits and Chuck and I dangled our feet in the water while Kelly, Tim, and Sean all dove in. The water was chilly and filled with fish. Some were almost two feet long, but those ones left us alone. The smaller six inch ones liked to eat our feet though. Like the monkeys, I had been warned about this already and was prepared. In fact, there are spas throughout Thailand that use fish just like this for beauty purposes. These fish spas have tanks of fish that you stick your feet into and they gnaw you dead skin away. Supposedly. And the fish at the waterfalls did the exact same thing. If you're squeamish you'd probably have a hard time sticking you feet in the water because you may have ten fish at a time chewing down the length of your foot. It's an intense sensation that tickles, but it's kinda fun once you get used to it. While we were beautifying our feet, a monkey was planning a sneaky attack. We were smart and had stuffed all our stuff in my bag and tied the strap around a root that was sticking out of the ground, so there was no way he was going to run away with it. Regardless, when I noticed him creeping down the tree I got up to protect our stuff in case he decided to riffle through. He redirected his attention to a small pile of someone elses stuff. I tried to stop him with a stern finger pointing, but he darted down the tree, grabbed one of the plastic grocery bags amongst their stuff and bounded up another trunk. Looking smug, he proceeded to empty the bag - which was basically empty to begin with - and in the process dropped a keychain to the ground. I picked it up and gave it to the Thai girl that was waving her arms and shouting at the monkey. She thanked me and we laughed. After all, it was pretty funny. After we had had our fill of the lovely first tier waterfall we moved on to the next one. And the next and the next. Each one was lovely with a mix of small, smooth falls and splashing longer falls. The water was a chalky turquoise color that contrasted prettily with the thick surrounding jungle. The fourth tier was the most fun! There were two large, round rocks which the waterfalls spilled over on their trip down the mountain. We climbed up the rocks and slid down them like a waterslide. Tim was crazy! He went down feet first, head first, and even just ran and jumped off. I was inspired by him to not only try the traditional feet-first slide, but also try the head-first version. Lots of fun! Although I did get a nose full of water. We eventually made it all the way to the seventh and last tier where quite a few people were milling about enjoying the waters. I noticed that the Thai's tend not to wear bathing suits. I mean, maybe they have a suit on underneath, but they wear a pair of shorts and a shirt while swimming. In fact, i don't think I saw a single Thai person in just a bathing suit. Guys and girls both, were covered with shorts and a shirt! I felt pretty naked walking around in my two-piece bathing suit... I hope I didn't offend anyone too much. They're probably used to our Western debauchery at the waterfalls since they're a popular tourist destination. After a relaxing soak we made our way back down to the first tier with only a stubbed toe on my part and changed back into dry clothes. Out in the parking lot we were happy to see that our taxi hadn't abandoned us. In fact, I was impressed that he had stuck around for four hours waiting for us. Impressed, and grateful. Back in town Chuck went straight to bed since he was still feeling sick. Turns out he had been trekking around the waterfalls with a temperature of about 100 F, poor guy. What a trooper! I grabbed dinner while he rested, and luckily a few hours later he was feeling well enough to eat something of his own. I guess he had some sort of 24-hour bug. Luckily it was only 24 hours.

On the 29th we had breakfast at the hostel's restaurant. I had me some pork rice porridge which was listed under the "Thai Breakfast" section, which was a very, very small section. I guess there's not much in the way of Thai breakfast food. I had another tooth-pain attack while eating, although not nearly as bad as when I had been woken up by it a few nights prior. I began to worry that I might have an actual tooth problem. It faded though, and I went about my day. Although there's a lot of stuff to do in Kanchanaburi, we decided to do none of it and just relaxed in the green garden area at the hostel. I got some pictures of the plants, rocked in the hammocks, tried some seaweed flavored potato chips. Just after sunset we came across a huge swarm of flying ants on the wall just around the corner from our room. They were attracted by the lone light that was hanging over the stairs leading to the second floor rooms. Looking closely we saw a herd of geckos clinging to the wall, snapping up any ant silly enough to fly too close. There were about 15 small geckos and two huge ones - at least six inches long. They were very cool and we were spell bound as we watched them feasting for ten minutes. Finally deciding we'd had our fill of gecko-feasting fun, we headed back to our room where we were met by a horrible, horrible sight. Darting erratically around the lights were hundreds of the flying ants. Apparently, we had left our door cracked just enough for them to find their way in our room and hover around the lights we had left on. What a nightmare! There was even a sign posted inside our room warning specifically against leaving the door open at night. I really wanted to avoid the embarrassment of admitting to the hostel that we had allowed a bug infestation in our room, so I wracked my little brain and immediately had an idea that I thought sounded rather ingenious. We flipped off the lights and cutting through the dark, I shined our handy little flashlight on the ceiling. Holding it there for a few moments I cringed as the bugs swarmed, bumping into my hand in their unnerving bug-like way. I motioned for Chuck to open the door as I slowly moved towards it, finally dragging the light of the torch past the threshold. The ants had no choice but to follow the mesmerizing glow out into the night. We quickly shut the door before they figured out they had been tricked and stood in the darkness for a few moments, amazed that it had actually worked. When we turned the lights back on the swarm had been reduced by more than half! We repeated the process a few more times and then took to just smashing them with wads of toilet paper. Within 30 minutes we had cleared our infestation down to the last ant! I was rather proud. Meanwhile the geckos had done quite a good job of clearing up the swarm around corner. All was right again in the world. Except my tooth. It started hurting again - hurting really badly. We had to go to 7-11 and buy a bottle of whiskey to help dull the pain and get me to sleep. I might have gone to a pharmacy instead, but it was late enough that they had all closed and I really needed some chemical help if I was going to get any sleep. I ended up waking up around 4:00 AM anyways, and couldn't get fully back to sleep afterward. Yeah, I would definitely have to do something about the tooth once we were back in Bangkok. This really bummed me out.

On the 30th we breakfasted at the hostel again. This time I got french toast that wasn't even close to comparing to my Mom's. What a disappointment. I fought gentle tooth pains throughout the day as we traveled by bus back to Bangkok. The tickets were 100 baht each and the bus was air conditioned. It was a much nicer ride - and shorter - than the train had been.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Bangkok I.ii

WARNING: This post contains some description of our two nights out in the red-light districts. I've tried not to be crude in my descriptions. Just wanted to let ya'll know.

On the 23rd we decided to check out the shopping scene in Bangkok. We took the handy Skytrain down two stops to the Siam shopping area. We wandered through the shops on the north side of the Skytrain, getting for a tasty watermelon smoothie at a Jamba-Juice-like shop. Being Christmas time, they had some lovely white wreathes accented with different colored lights hanging from the ceiling. Our wandering brought us downstairs and then finally outside, on the street. We walked along one or two streets before ducking into an arcade that housed a labyrinth of corridors lined with clothing and music shops. We ducked into a little store and got an MP3 CD titled Chill Out II. It was a collection of music by Thai artists that the shop workers recommended when we asked what some good Thai music was. Next we wandered across the street to the south side of the Skytrain and into the grand Siam Paragon. This shopping center was on the upscale end and contained a lot of expensive jewelry shops, a prestigious department store, a big bookstore, both a normal and an IMAX theater, and even a few exclusive car dealers on the 3rd or 4th floor. They had Lamborghinis and other sorts of expensive cars. Oh, and an aquarium on the bottom floor. This shopping center was also decked out for Christmas with a large Christmas scene set up just inside the front entrance and various other Christmas decorations throughout the building. We walked through the spacious hallways and eventually came across a gourmet supermarket. It had row upon row of packaged and fresh foods set up with clean, organized precision. All the foods looked to be good quality stuff and quite tasty. The fruits, fish, meats, nuts, candies, and even the eggs all made me nostalgic for a kitchen and some pots and pans. They had a few taste-testing places around the store so we got the chance to try various dried fruits, a few cracker-coated peanuts, and some prawn chips. It was all delicious! We also found some Tiptree jam in their jam section. If you remember, Chuck and I went to the Tiptree jam factory while we were in England, way back in May, and here was that very same jam, on a shelf in a store in Bangkok! Craziness. In the end we only ended up buying some dried strawberries though, seeing as it was all rather expensive. After the Siam Paragon we walked for 15 minutes to a place called MBK. It's another huge shopping mall, but not nearly as elite. The shops at MBK were less organized, many of them being only a small hole in the wall packed with clothes or trinkets or phones or whatever it was they were selling. It was mostly shops on every floor except for the top, or 6th floor which was home to a bunch of restaurants, a bowling alley, a movie theater, a few karaoke places, and two small arcades. We had been informed that there was a good hair-cutting place somewhere in the mess of shops that made up MBK, so that was what we set out to find. I was distracted a few times along the way by jeans shops, seeing as my only pair of jeans currently were so loose I could easily slip them off without undoing the button or unzipping them. We eventually (miraculously) found the hair-cuttery and Chuck disappeared inside leaving me to wander around, looking at more jeans. I found a pair that actually fit me at a nearby shop. As you might imagine, Thai women are generally smaller than, well, me. So most of the jeans I had tried on were super tight and looked pretty bad. The pair that finally fit me was nearly the largest size they had. Chuck is the carrier of the large money, and since the jeans were 600 baht, I had to wait for him to be finished with his haircut to actually buy them. So I wandered around looking at other shops for a while as I waited. Then I sat for a bit. Then I wandered looking at shops in the other direction. Then sat for a bit more. Then wandered upstairs for a bit. Then sat again. I decided I would just stay seated from that point on. Two tomboy-ish girls sat next to me and started taking pictures of themselves which amused me for a while. Then I watched as two young kids - toddler aged - ran around the open area in front of me laughing and giggling while their Dad chased them and hid behind pillars to play peek-a-boo. I thought it was really sweet that Dad was seeming to have just as good a time playing with them as they were with him. Now, it always seems to happen that when kids are playing, something gets knocked over or broken or someone gets hurt. In this case one of the kids knocked over a "Wet Floor" sign that was set up next to an older woman who had been vigorously scrubbing dirt off the white pillars that surrounded the area. I had noticed her earlier and thought she was doing quite quality work where most people might have slacked and not scrubbed the pillars all the way clean or been too lazy to reach up high to get the dirt at the top. She now had to stop her work and climb down her short ladder to set her sign straight. I watched for the inevitable bad attitude that I was sure would be directed toward the kid, so I was surprised when she climbed down, knelt next to him with a big smile and started playing with him. I had been certain she would be upset at the disturbance, but she was happy to play with the kids for a few moments, fix her sign, then go back to work. For some reason, the whole situation really struck me. Having seen that, I then recalled seeing a kid playing in the department store where we first came in. He had kicked off his shoes and was crawling around on the floor, giggling and being noisy while his Mom shopped. The employees who worked there, instead of being annoyed at him, took his shoes and were playing hide and seek with them. I realized at this point that the Thai cultures actually likes their children! They play and smile and giggle with their kids rather than treat them as annoying pests or fashion accessories. I noticed this in many places and situations after this. For example, a couple of times when we had been sitting outside the hostel and someone with a baby in their arms walked by - if we smiled and looked interested they would stop and show the baby off to us. It's as if they're proud of their children and happy to show them off. I find it quite nice. But back to our shopping trip. Chuck's haircut was finally done over an hour after he went in. He had an interesting experience while in there, apparently. His hair cutter spoke zero English, so chuck was having a hard time describing what he wanted. The guy did the trim and all that, then styled it into a trendy Asian look, which is not Chuck's style. He said he looked like some Final Fantasy or anime character! I wish I had seen that. So when he saw his hair in sweeping spikes across his head he held in his panic and asked the guy to change it. He came out with a stylish trim in the end. And then, I got my pants! They needed to be hemmed though, so after paying I left them at the shop and came back 15 minutes later to a pair of pants just the right length for me. How convenient. It was back to the hostel after that. I got some fruit on the way back and I have no idea what it was. It was already cut up so I'm not sure what the original shape looked like, but it was green and almost chewy in texture. The taste was not very good in my opinion and it came mixed with a chili-salt-sugar. Really strange stuff. It wasn't until 10:30 that night that we went out again. Carlijn, Chuck and I all took a taxi to the famous Patpong area for a night of red-light debauchery. Patpong is the most famous of Bangkok's red-light districts, thus the famous ping-pong shows are mostly found there. Many people hear "ping-pong show" and think it's kinda strange and cool that people like ping pong so much that they'll pay to go see people play. The people who think this are surprisingly mistaken. This ping-pong show is of the X-rated variety. These ping pongs are being shot out of a woman's vagina, on a stage, in a strip joint. That's all I'll say about the show for the moment - I'll save the gory details for when I describe our experience. Yes, we saw a ping-pong show. It's one of those things, like eating bugs, that we felt needed to be ticked off our list of "Things To Do Before You Die." So! The three of us took a taxi to Patpong and as soon as we stepped out of the vehicle we were set upon by a couple of disreputable looking men asking "You want ping-pong show?" while shoving their laminated price sheets under our noses. We had done as much research as possible about the show before we set out for the night, and we knew that these panderers were out to milk us for all they could. We ignored the first few guys as best we could, but one stuck to us like white on rice. Even though we claimed we didn't want to see the show, he kept following us and trying to guide us into various clubs. Chuck was starting to get frustrated, I thought it was all rather funny, and I think Carlijn was just standing back and letting us handle the whole affair. We passed by one club he was trying to usher us into and he darted ahead of us to try and usher us into the next one along the road. We tried to get away from him by crossing the street and mingling with the mass of people that is constantly flowing up and down the street, but he was not fooled. He somehow managed to keep in front of us, trying to tempt us into each ping-pong club we passed. We finally decided that we may as well just get it over with and asked the guy "How much?" He didn't want to answer and instead kept motioning for us to follow him into the club called Super Pussy. We knew that not agreeing to a price beforehand was a big no-no so we stood our ground and insisted upon a price before going inside. It took us few moments but he finally relented and told us it was 300 a person and that it included one drink. We double-checked the price a few times, even going so far as writing it down and confirming, just to be sure that they couldn't claim they had quoted a different price. And then we went inside! I hadn't ever been into a strip joint before, but it lived up (or down) to my expectations. Mostly dark with a small stage that stuck out into the room, surrounded on three sides by a few rows of bar benches and stools. It wasn't crowded in the least which made me wonder if we had picked a "bad" ping-pong club. Then I thought it was funny that I was worrying about such a thing when we were there to see the kind of show that we had come to see. I mean, a ping-pong show is about as seedy as you can get. In fact, I've heard that they're technically illegal in Thailand and that the clubs pay off the cops to stay in business, so a lack of thriving business should be the least of my worries. We were ushered to the bar to pay and get our drinks. Chuck and I gave Carlijn exactly 600 baht and she paid the total with a 1000 baht note. Unfortunately, the bartender confiscated her 100 baht change that she was owed as a "tip" and refused to give it back no matter how much we argued with him. So we learned a valuable lesson that night: pay in exact change when going to ping-pong shows. After giving up on getting our change back we took a seat and turned our attention to the stage. The ping-pong show was on-going throughout the night and we turned up at the end of the previous set, while the woman was blowing out candles on a cake with her vagina somehow. Then she laid on her back and magically shot darts out, popping a bunch of balloons hanging from the ceiling to show how incredible her aim was. That being the last act, we had to wait a bit for the show to start again. I use the term "show" very loosely. The stage was very plain with a few poles set up around it. There were about seven or eight girls up there moving lazily to the music. When I say lazy, I mean lazy as in bored, not a sexy lazy. They looked so bored and half the time I thought for sure that they were thinking about the bills that were due, or what they needed to get at the grocery store. Maybe three of these girls did any "ping pong" work, and the girls who did were some of the least attractive (according to the typical social standards) on stage. I remember one being pudgy with a dumpy behind, and another being tall and thin with a long, horse-like face. The girls danced and the music played and in the midst of all this was the ping-pong show, which before long was starting again. I won't describe in exact detail each act that they performed, but I'll list off the sights I remember seeing and let your imagination fill in the details. There was a string of razors that was pulled out, a bottle of soda was chugged in and then out, back into the bottle, bananas were shot at the unfortunate souls who were foolish enough to sit right next to the stage, and of course, ping pongs were shot at a brave volunteer who was wielding the ping pong paddle. And all the while the other girls were dancing in boredom in the background. It was very anti-climactic and unexciting. The most interesting part was when one of the girls working the floor in her bra and panties came over to flirt with the three of us, suggesting a 4-some for the night. That made us girls giggle. We were nervous about overstaying our welcome so we stayed for only about 45 minutes. After our drinks were done we left, able to proudly claim that we had been to a ping-pong show. Woohoo! Next we explored the overpriced market that is set up every night along the road and ended up getting two cute little shirts fro Chuck's nephews. Hmm, realizing that we got his nephews a gift on the same night and on the same street that we saw a ping-pong show makes me feel wrong somehow... I hadn't even though about it until I wrote this! Oh well. We walked around the market, had some soup, etc, and finally headed back to the hostel only to find ourselves locked out. We rang the door buzzer over and over only to be ignored (or unheard). Within 20 minutes there was a crowd of about 10 of us wanting to get into the hostel, banging on the door occasionally and constantly ringing the door buzzer. We had the bright idea to call the hostel, but it was a bit of a puzzle to do so. Chuck and I had a Thai sim card (a pre-paid microchip you stick in your cell phone which aren't easily available in the US but should be), Carlijn had a charged cell phone, and someone else had the hostels phone number. So Carlijn cracked open her phone, replaced her sim card with ours and called upstairs. The hostel guy heard the phone ringing, luckily, and we were all saved!

The 24th - or Christmas Eve - was spent with Carlijn doing a walking tour of Chinatown that we found in her Lonely Planet book. We started out at the main train station in Bangkok, Hua Lamphong, and made our way towards Wat Trimitr. As we started down the road we realized something special was going on. The street was lined on one side with school children in uniform holding little yellow flags, while shopkeepers and regular civilian folk lined the other. There were sharply dressed police officers along the road looking busy and full of importance, while a number of official looking people wearing suits and looking rather serious were gathered at the entrance to the temple complex. We stopped and asked someone along the road what was going on. "The King," he told us. Thai people love the King. They respect him and love him and will stand in huge crowds for an hour (or more maybe) for a chance to see him. Saying bad things about him or the royal family, vandalizing his picture (and there are huge pictures of him all over Thailand), stepping on coins that you dropped and are rolling away or using them in games (because his face is on them) are all big no-nos that will probably upset a Thai person enough that they will drop their typically easy-going manner and show you their displeasure. I imagine there are some dissenters in the population who are not happy with the King as there will always be those within a country unhappy with their government. But I never heard anyone say anything bad about the royal family. In fact, I heard a story about a Swedish guy who spray painted a moustache on one of the many posters of the King and was sentenced to 15 years in jail. I was told that after a year or so he was deported back to his home country where he was released. Who knows if it's true, but it's a little story to scare the tourists into behaving nicely. I think we behaved nicely enough as we walked down the street through the waiting crowds, keeping our eyes open for anyone especially important looking. Sadly, we passed by without any sightings. We stood in a big intersection at the middle of which was a big Chinese arch, brightly colored and richly carved. We continued west, stopping into a temple and passing by Chinese medicine shops with dried snakes and seahorses in the windows. After visiting another smaller temple (the woman insisted we say a respectful prayer after we made our donation) we came to a coffee shop of sorts. It looked like a dingy warehouse that was still in the process of being organized, filled with rickety tables and stacks of boxes. Just about every seat was filled - all locals and mostly old men. We sat down and a young lady brought us a small drinks menu. Most of them were somewhat unusual drinks like milk and red syrup or tea and green syrup, which is what Chuck and I ordered. Strange drink name, but very tasty drink! My milk and red syrup was basically chocolate milk, but replaced the chocolate syrup with some kind of red syrup. And Chuck's tea and green syrup was just that - tea with a sweet green syrup mixed in. From there the guide book had us walk along some small back alleyways that looked like small warehouses that had been made into homes. We passed though lots of markets selling strange foods and ingredients, beads, Chinese red and gold paper decorations, clothing patches, shoes, hair accessories, jewelry, and more that I can't remember. I saw many strange animal parts and shops filled with a hundred bags of what looked like different kinds of pork rinds. There were fruits, both common and exotic to my eyes. Fresh fish, always whole, was to be found somewhere along every market street. One soup vendor had a giant wok set over a raging fire that was uncomfortably warm as we passed by it from ten feet away. We walked for about an hour and a half through the various markets, enjoying the vibrant radiation of life that comes from people going about their daily routines. We passed by Chinatown's oldest gold shop and another temple before finally needing a break. There was a soup cart hanging out on a nearby street corner that we thought looked good. Turned out we were right and we had a delicious, filling, rich soup. There was a funny meat of some kind in the soup that I decided was liver. I'd never had liver before, so I didn't know what liver tasted like, otherwise I would have known it was definitely not liver. It was a dark reddish-brown and gelatinous in texture, meaning it had no muscle-y strings to chew through which made it really strange to eat. I found out many weeks later that it was blood. Blood left in a bowl or bucket. Left to congeal until it was solid enough to cut into chunky cubes. Blood! If I had known that at the time I would have made a lot more faces as I ate and probably not eaten all of it. It really wasn't bad though - the texture was the most disagreeable part. Now I can proudly say that I've eaten blood cake! We continued onward, this time heading south until we came across a somewhat unusual sight. A group of twenty school children, each carrying an instrument or drum, being led across the road by a uniformed school teacher. They were heading to a temple that the Lonely Planet guide book had completely neglected to mention. We followed them in and found ourselves in the courtyard of one of the most lovely temples I've seen. The children seated themselves on the ground between the two temple buildings and talked animatedly, but quietly as they fiddled with their instruments. We went to explore the temples. The main Buddha statue inside the east one was beautiful and delicate looking, studded with small gems and surrounded by an entourage of golden decorations. The west temple was filled with twenty sizable, golden Buddha statues, all sitting next to each other in tiers. The decoration on the outside of the temples covered only the upper half of the buildings, but it was beautiful. I'm not sure why we found it so nice since it wasn't any more splendid than most other temples we'd been to. There was just a certain charm to it somehow. From there we made our way through some more back alleys, trying to find the oldest Chinese-style house in Chinatown. We got a bit lost and I'm not sure we actually found it, but we saw other interesting things long the way to make up for that. The giant ribbon-wrapped trees were fun - I'm pretty sure it's a religious thing although I'm not clear on the significance. The huge piles of blackened car parts were the other really interesting sight. When it came time to making our way back to the main road we were at a loss, so we stopped to ask some locals at a street stand. Since Chuck is the best with Thai, it was his job to speak. I can't remember what the word was that he said, but apparently he mispronounced it because two little girls that were listening in started laughing and repeating what he'd said. I think Chuck felt a bit silly, but it was pretty funny to see those girls get a kick out of our inability to speak Thai. Turns out we were already on the road we wanted which was convenient. We just kept walking until we came to our next and final stop on the walking tour: the first church in Bangkok. It wasn't too exciting in all honesty - we've seen a lot of churches. But it was nice enough I guess. There were some kids playing outside the church windows and when one boy turned his head and was distracted at seeing us inside, his friend pelted him in the head with a ball. I had to laugh. We headed towards the closest pier at this point, stopping into a luxurious Marriot or Hilton hotel lobby for a few pictures. We were dead tired and so relieved when we finally got back to the hostel. We rested all evening, but the day wasn't over. There was still the infamous Soi 1 pub crawl (Soi 1 is the name of the hostel). We were in for an interesting evening, that's for sure. I decked myself out in my new jeans and tank top for this special occasion: Christmas Eve pub crawl. The group of 15 of us left at a timely 9:30, all led by hostel-owner Dave, and took taxis to the third red-light district called Soi Cowboy. This street is reminiscent of Las Vegas thanks to all the neon lights and scantily clad women trying to coax you into the club they work for. Dave had a routine though and our first stop was a strip-joint called Susie Wongs. We had been told what to expect at this place before going, so I was at least prepared for all that I was going to see, which was quite a lot. We filed in, paid 150 baht for our small beers and sat down in the rows of booths that surrounded the stage. This place was at least nicer looking than the ping-pong show's club from the night before. The girls were already on stage and dancing in their tiny little silver shorts, knee high boots and nothing else. Every once in a while a girl would do a sort of flip between two of the poles set around the small strip of stage and thump to the ground in a split. Their heavy boots would make a hearty thwack each time they plummeted to the stage. The show moved to it's next act, which was the most shocking of them all. I feel odd just typing it out here, but I'll do my best to explain it without being too crude. The girls performed "lesbian activities" with each other, right there on stage. It was all very mechanical looking, as if they've done it a thousand times, which is exactly the case. The girls have done this show over and over and are just hoping to be picked for the night by some sugar daddy. That's how strip joints work in Thailand. The girls aren't dancing for tips, they're dancing to try and convince a guy to take them home for the night. Each girl had a number pinned to her outfit so that a guy (or girl even) could tell the bar which number he (or she) wanted to take home. We went on this pub crawl one other night and saw a couple in the back start throwing ping pong balls at the girls. The girls got all in a fluster on stage and were scrambling to catch and pick up any that had bounced onto the ground. They were laughing and shouting and frantic to get all the ping pongs they could. I was told that for each ping pong, a girl would get some about of money. I can't remember if it was 10 baht of 100, but it was enough that they were trying to collect as many as they could. I saw one of the patrons who was sitting right against the stage grab one that had landed on the ground and stick it in his pants, trying to get the girl who was after it to go down there. Of course, she had no qualms about that and went straight in (I've seen strippers who are working the floor just walk up to a man and put her hand on his crotch as if to introduce herself). Once she had her ping pong she was back to trying to catch more. I also got my hands on one, but I just tossed it back to the girls on stage. Anyways, back to the lesbian activities. There was a Dutch girl to my right that as to "grossed out" as she put it and had to leave. Us girls had more fun trying to watch the faces of the guys in the row ahead of us - some gawking and others impassive, most a mix of the two. I was relived when the show changed to the next act though, I'll admit. It was just too weird to watch these girls mechanically pleasure each other in front of an audience of 30 people. The next show was kinda cool because it was girls covered in black light sensitive paint dancing in the dark. What was even cooler is that we got to watch the guy paint the flowery scenes on the girls bodies on stage. Because it was dark one could imagine the paint was just magically appearing on their skin in glowing streaks. It was rather beautiful. There was one more act that wasn't interesting enough to remember. Through all the acts the girls, just like the girls from the night before, looked very bored while on stage. I can completely understand this because they do the same act night after night, but it doesn't make for a very exciting performance. After that we went to another strip club where one of the prettier girls there told me she liked my lip ring. After some time and a drink there we were done with strippers for the night. We went to a bar at the end of the street that specialized in pool and rock and roll. By this point quite a few people had headed back to the hostel or off to do something else on their own, leaving us with six people. All six of us piled into a taxi (I ended up on Chuck's lap and the Aussie guy ended up on his friends lap) and headed to a club called Spicy. In Bangkok the law says that clubs/bars/etc all have to close at 1:00 AM. Of course, there's a bit of bribery that goes on in Bangkok and Spicy is one of those that has paid to keep it's doors open all night. The only downside to getting in is the cover fee. You can either pay 300 baht a person (you get a little drink with this) or buy a 2000 baht bottle of whiskey to share amongst your group. We went for the bottle, got our hands stamped, and went inside. Like your typical dance club, it was dark with loud music, a couple of bars set up on either side of the huge room. We were there for about 30 minutes when the music stopped and the lights flickered on. Dave grabbed our bottle of whiskey, gave us a strange smile and said "Come on." There was a sort of organized urgency and confusion in the club as we followed Dave, who was following one of the bouncers he was friendly with. We slipped across the road and into the hotel across the way, up to the 3rd floor and into a much smaller bar. The music started up as more people piled in and the party continued there. We were told that the cops had decided to come and enforce the law about closing at 1:00, forcing everyone to go elsewhere. I felt like a little fugitive, hiding out int he bar across the street! It was a tad exhilarating, I have to admit. The music was even better at our new spot and we stayed well into the morning. We ended up meeting a really nice Thai girl named Jong who we played pool with for a bit. At 5:00 AM, Chuck, Jong and I went downstairs for an early morning snack. She ordered soup which came in a big silver bowl set on top of a flame to keep it warm. She warned us it would be spicy, which it was. In fact, it was too spicy for her, but just about right for Chuck. She joked about how it was supposed to be us complaining about the heat, not her. At about this time we saw Dave practically skipping off down the road arm in arm with one of his friends - that was the last time we saw him for the next 12 hours. He can be a party animal! We also saw the ugly side of prostitution while we were eating. A local girl stormed off to the corner of the road where she looked like she was going to try and catch a cab. A white guy followed after her and they had some heated words, which ended when she pulled a wad of money out of her pocket, threw it on the ground at his feet and ran off around the corner. No idea what it was specifically about, but I guess he had given her money which he felt he was owed back. Eeeps! By this time it was Christmas morning and we were ready for bed. It had certainly been the raunchiest Christmas Eve I'd ever had, by a long shot. But it was a fun night!

Somehow, we managed not to sleep too long on Christmas morning. I think we were awake by 10:00 AM, searching for street food and planning what to do for the day. We had heard of this huge electronics mall just down the canal and decided it would be a good place to go. Although Bangkok decks itself out with Christmas decorations (and it really, really does), they doesn't actually shut everything down for the occasion like in the Western world (or maybe just the States). They do shut down for days during New Years though, and Chinese New Year is a big deal too. But lucky for us, everything was open for our purchasing pleasure! We took the awesome river taxi to Pantip and walked our way to the electronics building. There was some sort of kids Christmas show going on out front that we watched for a few moments before heading inside. It was an impressive seven stories of electronics, all crammed into small shops and carts set-up along the walkways. The central part of the building was hollow, giving us a view of all seven floors at once. We didn't know where to start so we just wandered aimlessly. There were phones, clocks, computers, video games, game consoles, laptops, computer parts, printers and ink, mouses (mice?), movies, projectors, tvs, and food. We found ourselves inexplicably drawn toward the movies and video games. I browsed through one shop's book of video games and found two that I wouldn't mind playing: Lego Indiana Jones II and Dragon Age. We told the guy behind the counter which games we'd like and paid, and he told us to come back in 15 minutes. Wanna know how much those two games were? Only 200 baht. That's $6 US. For two popular games. It was a steal! Literally. I mean, the games are literally stolen. They're downloaded online, just like how people download music and movies "illegally." In Thailand, buying these games, movies, and music is basically like paying someone to do the work of downloading the data and burning it to a CD or DVD. I don't know what the exact laws on this particular business is, but they're lax or non-existent enough that it is a thriving business. It's not shady at all either - no one is hiding it. So although I know it's "wrong" (You wouldn't steal a CAR, would you??, or so they ask at the beginning of movies at the movie theater these days), I certainly didn't feel any guilt in buying them. In fact, I still don't feel any guilt, but I'm not really down with all those crazy copyright laws to begin with - call me a rebel. While waiting we explored a small part of the rest of the mall. Some stores were expensive, some cheaper, but nothing struck me as being ridiculously low priced. After 20 minutes we had our brand spanking new video games and headed off to our next stop: MBK. Chuck had gotten a hankering to go to an arcade and the only one anyone seemed to know about was on the top floor of MBK. We found the arcade right next to a good looking sushi restaurant and made note of the place for later. The arcade wasn't particularly special, but it was particularly crowded. Mostly with 12 to 15 year old kids in school uniforms, girls and boys alike. A number of the games had lines forming as people waited to have a turn. The most interesting game we found was one of those busy ones. It was called DJ Max Technika. It was a rhythm game, similar to Guitar Hero or Dance Dance Revolution, but it was played by tapping a touch screen at the right moment as a moving bar passed the notes. Most notes you just tapped with your finger, but some you had to hold down, others you had to drag your finger along the screen, following the note as it moved. We got to watch quite a few people play before we had our turn and holy crap, some of those kids are amazingly good! Their fingers few across the touch screen, too fast for me to follow. On the harder levels you have to hit more than on note at a time, meaning they had both hands gliding across the screen. They were just on fire. It was really cool, and really daunting because when it got to be my turn I was going to feel embarrassed at my lack of skillz. As we were waiting one of the older kids started talking with us. He asked us where we were from, what we were doing in Thailand, etc. He also mentioned something about the Thailand Game Show coming up in Bangkok in a few weeks time, which planted a little seed in our heads. Then it was Chuck's turn to play and he did decently for it being his first time. Then it was my turn. I bit through my nervousness and just did it, playing the easiest mode while the nice guy who had taken a liking to us gave me pointers. It was fun! I did horribly, but it was fun! Chuck played a couple more times, but I was still feeling rather self conscious about having five Thai kids watching me stumble through a game at which they are gods, so I just watched. Sushi was the next stop. The place was called Sukishi and it looked like a restaurant in the States - four walls, clean tables, padded booths, staff in uniform, nicely decorated. I was pretty excited about having sushi again after god knows how many months, and I was not let down. The satisfaction I got from our few sushi rolls is indescribable. I didn't even know I liked sushi that much, but it was just divine. I was in heaven. The slightly sweet, sticky rice; ocean flavored sheets of seaweed; warm and crunchy tempura-ed shrimp; cool, soft, buttery chunks of avocado; salty grains of bright orange fish roe. All mixed with the aged saltiness of a thick soy sauce. It was so good! To bring us back down to earth, our bill was about double what we had expected. Upon further investigation we discovered that they had accidentally charged us for a much pricier sushi set than the one we had ordered and eaten. I sneakily stuffed ice cubes into my bottle of water while they corrected the mistake and then we blissfully walked around MBK for a bit before going back to the hostel. I was anxious to check if my new games worked, so that was the first thing I did once we got back. Chuck took a boring old nap, leaving me to figure out how to go about installing hacked software. It was really easy though and both games worked. Yay! I've considered buying them legitimately if they turn out to be good and I actually play them. By that time Chuck had finished napping and went downstairs to drink beer with Carlijn in front of the hostel. We would just pop next door to 7-11 for a 40 baht beer and enjoy it on the front stoop. Have I mentioned how many 7-11's there are in Thailand? It's like Starbucks in the Western world - one on every corner, and often in between. It should be the national store of the country, I swear! I prefer to go to Mom-and-Pop shops if I can, so we eventually took to buying our beers and waters from the store on the other side of the hostel. They didn't have as much stuff as 7-11, but they had beer and 5 baht recycled water. I eventually joined them, and at some point we were joined by a very cool French-Canadian man who was traveling with his family. I mean, really traveling, like Chuck and me. They had sold their house and most of their possessions and just hit the road with their 7 and 12 year old kids. He was telling me how important they think it is for them to see the world and different ways of life as they're growing up. Him and his wife were homeschooling them as they went along and he said he's trying to foster in them an ability to think for themselves by teaching about various view points on different subjects. I really enjoyed talking to him. Meanwhile, Chuck had made friends with three Thai guys who were also getting drunk on the side of the road, right next to us. They spoke very little English, and Chuck spoke very little Thai, but they seemed to get along pretty well. Chuck says that at one point he wanted to show them how to fling a coin by sort of snapping it between his fingers, but they immediately stopped him when they saw what he was going to do. Chuck mimed "Why?" They pointed at the face on the coin and said "King." Even piss drunk, they were aware of and not okay with disrespecting the King! Later in the night when we were all feeling pretty good we saw some lights in the sky. They floated gently upwards, gliding on the wind as they rose. They made me feel a bit serene as I watched them. Through much pantomiming with the Thai guys we figured out that they were lanterns. I was busy wondering how they worked when someone just at the corner whipped one out to send up. It was a thin cloth or paper cylinder, blocked at one end with a big burner at the other. Light the burner on fire, let it go and the heat makes it rise up up up into the sky. This lantern, unfortunately, got into a fight with a nearby tree on its way up and the lantern lost. After a few moments of being caught in the branches it caught fire and quickly burned away. I think that was slightly cooler than having seen it rise uneventfully into the sky though...

On the 26th we woke with slightly fuzzy heads thanks to another late night. While talking to another hostel-mate we learned that there's a McDonald's at the American Embassy. I asked where the embassy was and it wasn't until later that I realized he was making a joke about how McDonald's practically is the American Embassy. There is no McDonald's at the real American Embassy! I felt like such a ninny. I just hope no one realized I wasn't in on the joke. But he also told us that there was a double Big Mac at McDonald's in Thailand! We had been doing such a good job avoiding the place, but once we heard this there was no stopping us. I just had to try this double Big Mac. I mean, four all-beef patties?? How could we not! I'm sad to say, it was great. So much beefiness and that frighteningly satisfying McDonald's-ness hit just the right spot. Throw in that salty mix of soft and crispy fries and we were in a sort of heaven. Terrible, I know, I know. I'm not sure if it was hang-overs or the McDonald's that encouraged us to stay inside all day, but that's what we did. We went to dinner at the cart stand we had eaten at on our first night and tried a new dish along with our pad thais. Don't remember it's name, but it was raw shrimp smothered in ground chili peppers and fish sauce. I was hesitant to try it at first, but I eat raw fish and if they eat raw shrimp without dying then it's all good. And it was good actually. Quite spicy, but good. Chuck had heard tell of a bigger arcade at some place a ways down the road called Center Point, Center world, something like that. After that McDonald's earlier, exercise was in order so we decided to walk. It took us about 30 minutes or more, but we made it! Along the way we stopped into a fancy seven floor department store and wandered around the toy section. I could still have fun with some of the toys they have these days. At the Center place we found huge crowds of people still celebrating Christmas apparently. There were a lot of vendors selling random stuff, trying to convince you to take a look as you passed by. I saw a lot of Thai people taking pictures with all the decorations that were still up. People posing, one after the other, with the lighted sleds or reindeer. I find it interesting that they tend to wear a subdued smile while getting their photo taken, but grin sincerely after or before the fact. I tend to put on a big grin for my photos. Not sure what this means - it was just an observation. We wandered around the Center Point mall (another huge one) and found a ton of Japanese restaurants, but never found an arcade. At least we got to see yet another part of Bangkok. That night I woke up around 1:00 AM with an incredible pain in my mouth. It seemed to radiate throughout my whole jaw so that I couldn't tell exactly where it was coming from. I waited a few moments thinking it must be some sort of strange phantom pain, but it didn't go away. I got down from my top bunk bed with thoughts of the emergency room running through my head, because if I couldn't get the pain to stop then that's where I would have to go. It was seriously intense pain. I quickly tore off a length of dental floss, ripped it through all my teeth and swished water around my mouth. The pain faded quickly leaving me to wonder what the hell that was all about. I went back to bed without a problem.

On the 27th we had soup around the corner for breakfast. The soup at this stall is oh-man-amazingly-good! The broth is the most perfectly flavored broth I've found so far (as I write this, I've tried many many more soups) and although the ingredients are simple, the simplicity only serves to make the soup better. You can choose from a variety of noodles, but we always got the yellow, curly egg noddles. He throws a handful of greens in the bowl, tops it with noodles, adds a fish ball or two and a few slices of red-rimmed pork (if you're lucky you'll get one or two pieces of crunchy crackling as well), sprinkles it with fried garlic cloves and spring onions, and then pours the tasty broth over the whole thing. I always add a healthy dose of fish sauce and Chuck adds a heaping spoonful of dried, ground red chilis. Yum yum! And each bowl is only 25 baht (less than $1 US). It's an awesome deal. Did I mention that we were leaving Bangkok that day? Yeah, we were headed to a town about three hours away called Kanchanaburi. Remember all those printouts posted all over the hostel that I mentioned way back when we first arrived in Bangkok? One of them had a detailed description of this town we were going to that made it sound like a really nice place to visit. We had been in Bangkok for quite a while already and it was time to see something new. So we packed our stuff up - somewhat sadly - and waited around until an hour before the train was scheduled to leave. We caught a taxi outside the hostel, who didn't seem to know where he was going and drove us to the wrong station. We told him "No, no. Thonburi!" He ended up having to call his English speaking friend and have him talk to Chuck before he finally figured out where we wanted to go. With the horrible traffic that is ever-present in Bangkok we didn't arrive at the station until ten minutes before the train left. We rushed to the ticket window, got our tickets and jumped on board as quickly as we could. Of course, all that was some what unnecessary as the train left late. Better safe than sorry though. The train was old with hard, booth-style seats and giant open windows. I mean, a fat man could easily climb out of one of these windows. I was used to trains having windows that opened only two inches, if at all, so these big windows were kinda fun. I could stick my head right out if I wanted. And of course, being a reasonably sensible person (in my opinion...) I'm aware that I would need to be careful when doing so because a branch could smack into me and take my face off. It seems to me that if you don't know this, then perhaps you ought to learn a little lesson via getting smacked in the face with a branch. But maybe that's a bit harsh... We weren't hurting for food on the train either because people would get on at every stop selling all sorts of goodies: teriyaki chicken on a stick, sticky rice, nuts, even small prepared meals. The conductor was a bad ass. He wore a police uniform, all tight and sharp and he had a well oiled hole punch that he wielded like a butterfly knife. You could hear the snap-snap as he moved down the train, punching holes in peoples tickets. He snap-snapped our tickets with the sort of knowing smile that a super hero gives to someone he just saved as he disappears back into the night. I was in awe of him. The scenery along the ride was nice and jungley - just how I expected Thailand to look. I'm even pretty sure I saw a small alligator (or maybe crocodile) with the top of it's head sticking out of the water in a canal as we passed by. There were also small homes set up near the railroad tracks near towns. They were mostly very simple, many roofed with just a sheet of corrugated iron. A lot of the people - adults and children alike - liked to wave at the train as we went by. I began to realize that the Thai people are... playful. Where many adults have lost any sort of wonder at the world, Thai people generally seem to still be able to find pleasure in small things. At least, that's how it's seemed to me in many of my observations. Their love of children is one of them. Even our bad-ass conductor was wooed by the charms of a foreign toddler who was sitting in the aisle as he was passing through. Mr. Conductor squatted down and playfully poked the kid a few times before moving on. In general, people seem less hateful of their jobs than people in the Western world. I mean, some people have crappy jobs, but they still do them with a smile and a sense of determination. Of course, not everyone seems to feel this way. And I could also be completely wrong in my speculations - maybe everyone is just really good at covering up their unhappiness. I'm sure that's also true to a degree, but I think there really is more of an acceptance of life as it is and an enjoyment of the smaller, simpler things that happen. I dunno! It's just really nice. We also got a taste of some foreign ignorance on the train. We overheard a conversation between two people speaking English with an accent, one of which asked "What language do they speak here?" His friend replied "I don't know, Chinese?" I really hope they were just messing around, because that seems crudely ignorant to me. Maybe I'm just being judgmental though. I do have the ability to be judgmental at times, although I try not to be... The train ride only lasted for three hours, and before we knew it, we had arrived in the lovely, scenic Kanchanaburi.