Bangkok

Jennifer and I needed to leave Indonesia before mid October in order to renew our visas. This was the basis for our friends Matt and Rita coming then, so that we could also share the experience of exploring another country with them, besides Bali. We chose Thailand. Jennifer and I had both been there, independently, before we met, and both had liked it (for me that was 27 years ago). And since this was to be Matt and Rita’s first time in Asia, Thailand seemed like a great place to start. Definitely exotic and altogether different from Bali, but also relatively westernized. So a plan was hatched: 9 days in which to split Bangkok and Chiang Mai.

Bangkok is huge. It’s not so tall -though it does have many tall buildings. But it is big, and busy, bustling, and dense -everywhere: colored lights, signs, music, narrow alleys, alcohol, cement, billboards, sex, wide streets, food carts, tuk-tuks, fashion, overpass stairways, buses, exotic people, steam, grit, sidewalk stalls, skyTrain supports, grills, woks, traffic, glass, people scurrying everywhere, or sitting in a smoking haze, futuristic electronic billboards lighting up the sides of buildings. Bangkok is both worn down and modern at the same time. It’s both repelling and seductive. It often reminded me of the movie Bladerunner.

Matt and Rita arranged for our hotels in both cities ahead of time (we benefited greatly from their willingness and desire to comb through TripAdvisor for rooms and restaurants). Our Smart suite was nice, with a touch of Art Deco, and a very nice staff. After checking in we ventured out on foot to find dinner. Our immediate street was fairly quiet (though typically, still with several food stalls with groupings of small, dirty plastic chairs). Up a few blocks we turned a corner, and things changed fast. This was Bangkok! The restaurants were packing them in -or at least, the groups of pretty young women in short skirts near each entrance were trying to. But the sidewalk was where the action was: an endless, bustling stretch of party nightlife. Food carts side by side by side forever: fish; fruit; satays; eggs; noodles; shrimp; rice; lassies, crepes, soups, mysterious skewered things seen only in Asia; smoothies; dumplings; fried egg rolls; and variations of everything. There were shade umbrellas to dodge, and tarp ropes. People to walk around or through. Women beggars. Curbs and cracks to watch out for. Pulsing music coming from all directions. Up above, many tall buildings, and toy hawkers launching small glowing hovercrafts high into the air, to then float straight down into their open palm. The narrow streets were filled with brightly decorated tuk-tuks, taxi’s and other sorted vehicles. Across the street were several old-but-renovated VW buses. Their tops and sides uniquely folded up to double as open mini bars, complete with disco balls, loud music, stools, and a full range of alcohol to imbibe. We’d see these VW bars throughout Thailand. At our dinner table, Jennifer first dialed in to the realization that our lovely, pretty young waitress, was in fact, a he. This too, was something we’d see a lot of throughout our stay. And this was just a routine Tuesday night.

Jennifer and I hit the ground running the next morning -or at least, that was our intention. We hailed a cab to take us to the Myanmar embassy about 1-2 kilometers away. It took over an hour. The rush hour traffic in Bangkok is ridiculously congested -the worst I’ve ever seen. Fortunately, that was our last cab, as we learned about alternative ways of getting around. One night while exploring our neighborhood, I turned left instead of right, and stumbled upon the Khlong Canal, and its water taxi system, just a short distance away from our hotel. The canal runs east to west, and connects to most everywhere we needed to go -or close enough to the (SkyTrain) public transit stops. The water taxis are sort of like a Disney experience, except the water is putrid, and the scenery that lines the canal is often semi-squalid apartments and the stressed out underbelly of civil engineering rot. That said, I loved it. This canal is how many thousands of Thais get to work and about each day, all day. There are hardly any foreigners on the boats, which are maybe 50 feet long, and rickety, and can hold about 200 people. I almost couldn’t believe how tricky it was to get on and off, as the boat chugged quickly up to each wooden platform stop -briefly. There are no doors or gates or steps on the boat nor on the platforms -no designated place at which to get on or off. Instead, everyone must quickly squeeze through the various horizontal ropes and tarps that line the sides of the boats, find something -or someone- to hold onto, and hoist themselves up or down onto something that is hopefully stable, and wide enough for a foot. The boats are longer than most platforms, so sometimes one would need to shimmy along the thin outer edge of the boat to reach the platform -before the boat pulls away. I often watched in amazement as hordes of people on the crowded boat and crowded platform would somehow seamlessly change places -quickly- while the boat was still bobbing and drifting -a cascade of knees and elbows. Then off it would rush, to the next stop, again and again, all day long.

The engine was noisy, and covered by a big metal box in the middle of each boat. Tightly set rows of benches filled the front and back . Two young ticket sellers would patrol and navigate that thin outer ledge of each side of the boat, and shimmy from front to back constantly, finding each new passenger, by leaning down and in to negotiate the price, through the wind, or drizzle, and belching smoke, clutching the rope under their arm pit while deftly handling the cash and tickets. They worked hard. When other taxis would approach from the other direction, passengers sitting near certain ropes would take it upon themselves to raise the side tarps to prevent water splashing onto anyone. The tarps blocked the view, but as one man explained, you don’t want that water to touch you.

We had one scary moment while using the water taxis (getting on and off was always a bit nerve-racking, but not scary). once during evening rush hour, the packed boat stopped at a particular platform where everyone must get off (I never understood why, as the empty boat would continue on in the same direction). On this occasion, the platform was already packed with people quietly standing like sardines, waiting for the next empty boat to appear. Now, many more people squeezed on, and then another packed boat came up behind us. Something seemed to have gone wrong, yet everyone remained silent, and squeezed tighter. And there was no order to who was there first. We were pinned in, on that wooden platform, hoping that something wouldn’t panic anyone, and that the submerged platform supports could handle the weight. Eventually, relief boats came and remedied the tense situation, which we never saw repeated again.

-matt

I’m surprised to discover a lack of photos of these described aspects of Bangkok. But I do have a lot of videos, and will try to post them…

matt_iphone_Nov23_2013 197

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