Monday, March 23, 2009

SE Asia Chapter 3: The Road to Bangkok

Ok, so where did I leave you? Ah yes, the phenomenal week Amanda and I spent at Elephant Nature Park. I should mention that there was one casualty that week: my digital camera. I wish I could say it was lost when we ran to escape a stampeding elephant or was swept away by the river while we were dissembling rafts. But no, there wasn't even a breeze when my clumsy fingers fumbled it and it fell onto the sharp edge of large rock between my feet. So the rest of pictures of the trip belong to my friends Amanda and Ali.

We left the park feeling bittersweet and headed back into Chiang Mai on Sunday evening. We shared a room with a friend from England at Top North Guest house in the old city. We found the Sunday Market more lively than usual as the annual Flower Festival was being celebrated at Tha Pae Gate with a stage full with dancers and a chubby vocalist and substanstial live band all saturated painfully bright colors. We met the other volunteers we'd worked with over the last week at the Rooftop bar (whose decorating scheme had an unmistakable rastafarian influence) across from the market. On monday, Amanda and I headed into the centre of the old city looking for the temples we'd been diverted from seeing with Beer the last time we tried. First we stopped at a post office to ship from things back to Korea and lightened my backpack considerably. We found Ratchadamnoen Rd peppered with temples and shrines (and chickens and dogs and scrap metal sculptures Aliens and Predators!) but Wat Chedi Luang was the big one we were looking for and it didn't disappoint. It's an impressive structure on its own, but we were told by a friendly local that current commotion at the temple that day was due to a prominent Monk's death the previous week. His body was being kept at the temple for buddhist followers to come and pay their respects. Also on the grounds was a tree garden with Buddhist proverbs painted on sign posts. It was a great afternoon of sightseeing and some last minute shopping (Chiang Mai had the BEST markets of our entire trip!), but soon it was time to catch the 6:00PM sleeper train to Lopburi. Lopburi was the first leg of our trip south to Bangkok to meet up with Ali, Susan and Jennifer who'd left ENP on the third day and gone south to enjoy some time on Thailands famous beaches.

We kept entertained during the first few hours playing a make shift game of cribbage, while 3 of the train crew members watched us intently trying to discover the rules of our game. As night fell the crew made up the bunks. Amanda and I headed to bed, as we were scheduled to arrive in Lopburi at 4AM. I had no luck at sleeping though. The rattling and rocking of the train, the passenger snoring in the bunk beneath me, and the blinding light that defeated my curtain kept me tossing and turning until our train arrived in Lopburi at 5:30AM. The sun was not up when we left the station, which sits across the street from some beautiful ruins. A sign near the ruins pointed to a tourist information centre. We got some plastic wrapped breakfast from the 7-11 and, though it was a long shot, decided to see if the tourist building had some kind of map so that we could find our way to Phra Pramg Sam Yod. We didn't have much luck, but we did find a quiet spot to eat our pre-packaged pastries and watch some seniors practice thai-chi in bright pink exercise clothes. As we listened the drone of "hummmm-heeeee...." Amanda spotted something that looked promising: a monkey on a roof top. After a somewhat arbitrary deduction about what direction the city centre might be in, we headed down a main street. We didn't walk further than two blocks before we saw a monkey running along a telephone wire. And then two on a post, and then several more along the windowsills of a hotel's 3rd floor. Soon monkeys were everywhere and we knew we were headed in the right direction. When Phra Prang Sam Yod appeared before us, it was clear that my "lonely planet" had understated. It wasn't merely a "gang" of monkeys, there were hundreds of them! We were the only tourists onsite at 7:00 AM and the friendly gateman gave us a stick to whack away ambitious monkeys. It was a great morning. We were throughly climbed over and investigated by the youngsters. My notepad, M&M's and hand lotion were looted by one monkey who happily took my notepad to the top of the ruin and ripped it to pieces, letting the pages rain down on the other monkeys below, who made it their morning snack.

Across the street we found a temple complex where more monkeys were bouncing on vendor umbrellas like trampolines and picking their way through piles of fruit delivered by the locals. The monkeys are feed by the people and generally left undisturbed because they are considered lucky. I was running low on cash and my Mastercard hadn't been working, so after we'd taken a few hundred pictures with the monkeys, we headed further into the city to find a bank. We hopped aboard a brightly colored bus blaring loud music and hopped off again at a busy looking intersection. We found some goodies at a bakery and then found an internet cafe and was informed that my korean bank card was completely useless outside of Korea. Wonderful. The new mission for the morning was to call Mastercard to find out why I couldn't access those funds. This turned out to be a lot more difficult than expected. Convenience stores everywhere sold plenty of international cards, but none of the cards matched to correct brand of payphones on the streets. I was duped. And becoming very frustrated. By noon, Amanda and I were ready to move on to the quiet city of Ayutthaya, the ancient capital of Thailand and home to some fantastic ruins. I was sure I had enough funds to get to Bangkok and if there was anywhere where I could get connected to Mastercard, it would be there.

Getting off the train a tuk-tuk driver offered to take us to a cheap guest house near the cities priniciple ruins. We felt alittle weary, but we had not made plans ahead of time, and there was no harm in looking at a room. Luck was in our favour. "One Coffee Love" Guesthouse had paid drivers to fish for tourists because there were brand new and so would not be in any listings. The rooms were clean and bright, and directly across the street from Wat Mahathat. We spent the evening at the night market and ate dinner at an italian restaurant. I was feeling guilty about eating pizza in SE Asia, but Amanda reminded me we were on vacation from Korea, not Canada, afterall.

The next day we went bicycles for $1 and toured the major ruins of the city. There were moments that felt really transportative, like you could just imagine what the city had looked like 900 years earlier. We also took our bikes across the river that surrounds the city centre and saw some of the poorer side of town. We also stumbled across a temple being restored that housed a very large reclining buddha. It made us even more excited to head to Bangkok and see the world famous golden reclining buddha there. We stopped at a restaurant for lunch and I had their speciality dish: Joon Zap. It's a delicious soup you make yourself. They bring you a bucket of hot coals and place a large bowl with broth on top, then bring you all the veggies and seasonings on the side along with your meat (I had pork). It was one of the best meals I had all month! We were alittle sad to leave Ayutthaya. We'd found our short time there to be very relaxing and beautiful. But we needed to be in Bangkok to meet the girls at New Joe Guesthouse by 6PM that day, so soon we were back on the train. Despite not having a place to sit, I really enjoyed our times on the train. As I watched the landscape go rolling by I felt exhilerated to be doing more than staying in one place for this trip. And there was still so much more ahead of us!

We arrived in Bangkok and with a girl from Germany we'd met on the train, we got a cab to Kho San Road, the tourist centre of Bangkok, where Suze, Jennifer and Ali were meeting us. Immediately the traffic, noise and concrete of the city engulfed us, and Ayutthaya felt far away. We managed to get a cab driver who would put the meter on for us after a few attempts (tourist scam #1) and arrived at Kho San Road only alittle late. Kho San Road feels abit like a circus and a lot like a pond, where you are the fish and there are alot of hooks in the water. It was overwhelming to wander the market. Tour guides, tuk-tuk drivers, bars, restaurants, guest house owners, masseurs and street vendors all call out to you for your business. The streets are so crowded with people you can't see more than a few feet in front of you. We had been warned, but by the end of the evening I felt claustrophobic. And I had a very difficult time keeping my composure when we came across a street begging baby elephant, fear in his eyes. I had no desire to stay in Bangkok any longer than we had to.

We had a rough plan and we stuck to it. The following day we were up early to see the Royal Palace and Wat Pho, where the golden reclining buddha is housed. At the entrance some very legitimate looking gentle tried to divert us and tell us we could go in that gate. Going to another gate a man invited us to take a boat tour instead and come back when the palace was open (Tourist Scam #2). We went back to the main gate and walked in, ignoring the conmen trying to convince us to turn around. The buildings were absolutely exquisite, take a look at the pictures on the link at the bottom. I can hardly begin to describe it. I'd never seen anything like it in my life. Wat Pho was a short walk from the Royal Palace grounds and was equally breathtaking, even before we entered the main complex housing the reclining buddha. Jennifer had stayed back due to a stomach bug, and we had arranged to meet up with her at one of the largest malls in Bangkok. There I enjoyed some great shopping, including picking up two pairs of jeans that fit! (Finding pants for western women in Korea is a real plight, they just don't make pants for women with hips here!). We decided we would leave early the next day to make our journey to Cambodia, but there was one more thing we felt we needed to do before leaving Bangkok and that was of course: see a Ladyboy cabaret show! Thailand's drag queens are world famous, but I was surprised at just how openly accepted they were by the country itself. In the Thai language, there is actually a third gender included, so that women speak a certain way, men speak another and there is another set of words for the ladyboys to use. We were delivered to a fancy hotel for our show, and though there wasn't any actual singing (all lip-synched), I thoroughly enjoyed the campy show. We had a blast!

The end of the night was a real treat though. The alley in which you could find our guesthouse, was also the address of many massage parlours. I found one still open at quarter to midnight and went in for an hour long oil message. Faaaaantaaastic!

The pics are here:

I want to thank you guys for reading with these posts with so much patience, I know I'm very behind! Next Chapter: Cambodia. Coming soon, I promise!

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