Thursday, April 08, 2004

How not to get ripped off in Bangkok

Just a quick message to let all you worry warts out there know that I am in Bangkok safe and sound. I got in on Wednesday night around midnight after 20+ hours in transit. I had no real problems, but as this is my first adventure on my own, I was a bit on edge. Don’t-get-ripped-off overdrive is more like it. I got into the taxi and what came out of my mouth sounded something like this: “Hi. I need to go the Shanti Lodge on 37 Ayutthaya, soi 16. Don’t take the expressway because I know they charge tolls and there is no traffic now anyway and I know it isn’t full so don’t try to take me anywhere more expensive and make sure the meter is on and no I don’t want to go to any tailor shops or gem shops and no I won’t take any packages across the border for you.” Breath. The guy actually pulled over on the highway to see what kind of mutant he had picked up. I got there okay though.

My first day I planned to get an early start and get a good bit of sightseeing in before it got beastly hot. I was on my way to the wats (Buddhist holy places – but more on that in a minute) when I got waylaid by an Israeli guy names Shlomo – which incidentally is ancient Hebrew from Peg-Me-In-The-Face-With-a-Dogdeball – though he went by Solo. He was on his way to the Vietnamese Embassy to do visa stuff, which I had to do anyway. I decided to join him because he said that he knew where he was going and that it wasn’t far. He turned out to be wrong on both counts. After we decidedly could not find the right bus, we opted for a cab, which took 50 minutes to go 500 meters. Then we set off walking. Despite it being 5km, he insisted that it would only take 20 minutes. I was doubtful but what the hell do I know. We started walking with him following the map. He continuously assured me we were on the right road and going the right way, but I was reading over his shoulder, and, call me crazy, but I was always under the impression that the shortest distance between two points was a straight line. I keep following him though because (1) I am navigationally challenged, and (2) he was great at running point for the suicide street crossings. (more here by way of explanation) We walked for a number of “20 minutes.” Eventually we got on the Sky Train and made it to the Embassy, where he was told that he couldn’t have a visa because Israel did not have formal diplomatic relations with Vietnam. I left him seething on the sidewalk and went off in search of a cold drink and some wats.

That afternoon, after a Fanta (which type) and a bowl of Thai noodle soup, I hit the three major must-see wats of Bangkok – Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn), Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha) and Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha). For those of you who have never been to a wat, the experience is hard to describe. If you grew up on the shore, I can explain it like this: remember drip castles you made when you were a kid? The kind where you get a bucket of wet sand and let it trickle off your fingers, making intricate towers? Think of those, but huge and gold, and, instead of our haphazard creations, being symmetrical and of incredible artistry. As for the interior, think The King and I. As with every different type of place of worship I encounter, I was amazed by the patience and piety that went into creating such a structure. And the Reclining Buddha was especially frigging cool because it was HUGE. Think in terms of football fields, people. After spending a good number of hours wandering around the wats, I grabbed some street squid from?, jumped in a tuk-tuk and called it a day.

Then next day I hit the National Museum, which was big and at least partly air-conditioned. It mostly contained the history of various battles and all things of and related to the monarchy. I really dug the funeral carts. Those Thais know how to die in style. The most exciting bit was the huge lizard I found in the drainage ditch outside. I decided immediately that he must be a gila monster and tried to coax him out to get his picture taken, but apparently he doesn’t like Tic-Tacs.

Later that day I meandered over to Jim Thompson’s House. Jim Thompson was some white guy that came over from? and either revived the traditional Thai silk industry or made a killing off the backs of exploited laborers, depending on who is writing the history book. At some point in or around 1967 he decided to tak a walk and has yet to return, but his house is really cool. It is a conglomeration of six or so traditional Thai teak houses, surrounded by amazing kick-ass gardens. The whole compound was truly incredible, as was his collection of ancient Buddhist art. (Okay, the ages of the things were impressive, some dating back to the 7th century, but the art itself looked like something they used to block off lanes on the Triboro Bridge.)

Having had enough of site-seeing, I decided to do something practical with the remaining daylight hours— go shopping. I had only brought 2 tee-shirts with me and thought that at least one more would be required during my four month trip, so I headed over the Mahboonkrong Center, the largest mall in Thailand. Now, I may be a bit removed from mall culture, but one must remember that I am a Strong Island girl by birth. I spent all of middle school cruising enclosed shopping areas for boys. Whitman, Smithhaven, Roosevelt Field. Bring it on. I am a grizzled veteran.

[Insert consumerism smackdown here.]

I am completely unworthy. I cowered in the fluorescent light for a full three seconds before advancing. The mall was larger in size and population than most towns in upstate New York. It was filled with the blinking lights of new-fangled electronics yet to make it across the pond and cute little tee-shirts that a pre-schooler would have trouble wriggling into. And staffed by a strange race of Thai teenagers in SlipKnot tee-shirts. Timidly I bought something in cotton, size XXL, in the nearest boutique and beat it the hell out of there. Defeated, I tried to take a moto cab back to the hostel, but the driver got a bit lost. I ended up crossing the four way intersection under the Thai Phaya Skytrain Station from all four cardinal directions. I did eventually make it back though…

It is hot in Bangkok so I am heading south to the islands tonight or tomorrow. Whale Shark season has just started and me and my newly minted scuba license are dying to check it out.

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