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.

No comments:

Post a Comment