I'm at the Merry V Guest House. It's a clean, efficient place, with a convenient restaurant downstairs. I don't think I'll move again. Even though the room is quite small.
It feels much cooler now than it was last time I was in Bangkok, which was hellishly hot. Now, when I have the ceiling fan on the highest setting, I was actually too cool. That's something I haven't felt very often on this trip. Like last time I was here, I feel a little solitary in Bangkok, but that's a part of being in a large city—it's much harder to connect with people, both locals and fellow travelers.
The stock market was way down today, so I bought some stocks via the Schwab web site. I felt so very technologically adept and international!.
Chinatown was on the agenda today. I took the river bus downstream to the Tha Rachawong river landing, which leads directly into Chinatown. I'm not sure exactly how much of Chinatown I saw, but it was enough. I ducked into a tiny little crowded alleyway packed full with shoppers. The particular alleyway I was in was full of wholesalers selling large packages of hair accessories, cheap toys, all kinds of stationary and party accessories (Hello Kitty was especially popular). Even though there was barely room to walk through this alley, motorcycles and motor scooters went through with regularity, pushing their way through people. Nobody seemed to mind.
I turned corners at random. Next I encountered a road where every shop was selling pork rinds, all different kinds—huge sheets, smaller sheets, different shapes. There was one thing that looked like a pork rind, but it was round and the size of a tennis ball, so unless it's somehow processed, I don't think it actually was a pork rind. From there into an area which was full of tinware—kettles, ladles, pots and pans, all made right there. Even though this was Chinatown, I have to say people didn't look particularly Chinese, and I can usually tell the difference. I saw beggars a couple times—one blind guy led around by a kid, who chanted loudly as he went from store to store. Most gave him something. And then there's the people who're crippled, or legless. I'm going to look at the able-bodied beggars who stand on street corners in the US more skeptically now—not that I was unskeptical before, but it just reminds me of the difference between real abject misery and the affluent style of poverty we have in the US.
I saw a McDonalds on a main street—It was like a beacon for me around lunchtime. I'm never ever going to make fun of Americans or anybody who travels to an exotic city and then heads to a McDonalds to eat. There's a heck of lot to be said for consistency and predictability, and not wanting every single meal to be a cross-cultural experience. Having said that, it was pretty different. Nothing was in English, which shows they have few foreigners. The staff was very well dressed and clean cut, the men wore ties and the women little floppy bows.
There was a great hussle and bustle going on, being the lunch hour, but by the time I got to the front (it did take quite a while—I think I should have pushed my way forward a bit) it had quieted down. And—surprise! they spoke English pretty well. Down to the "Would you like fries?"! Or maybe I'm just imaging the "would you like" part, it was probably just "Fries?" Imagine having a foreign language requirement for a McDonalds job in the US! When empty my tray in the trash, employee tried to take it from me. We tussled over it a bit, I wasn't sure if she was just being nice or if customers leave their trays on tables here. We settled with a wordless compromise—I dumped my garbage in the trash, and she helped me by opening the trash container for me.
There are so many people in the streets here. So many people in general, here. So many of them seem really young, too, it seems as though most people you see are in their 20's or below. Three days again here in Bangkok is just about enough—I think from now on if I come to this part of the world again, I'll just use Bangkok as a transit point.
When I wanted to find my way back to my guesthouse again, I was deep in the bowels of Bangkok, but I just started asking people "Tha Ratchawong?" questioningly, and they pointed me in the right direction very quickly.
It's really amazing how many people here speak some English. I tried to reconfirm my flight for the second time, but couldn't figure out the phone system. So I asked the woman who was waiting for me to get off the phone for help. Turned out that she spoke some English, and explained that the weird noise I heard was the busy signal, and that I needed to wait until the line was "empty". Very helpful.
On the river taxi back home, I saw a pair of Buddhist nuns on the boat, in white robes and shaved heads. A man gave up his seat for one of them, and it was taken just as a matter of course, no "thank you" or anything.
I tried a peeled pomelo from a street stand. It's like a grapefruit, but larger, sweeter, and with a thicker rind. What they do here is pre-peel it—not just the rind, but the skin from each section, so it's really easy to eat. Of course, after I bought it I got a queasy stomach thinking of all the manipulation it required to cut the skin away from each section, and really hoped she washed her hands thoroughly before doing it.
I went to a bleak looking shopping center here ("New World"). It was about 8 stories high, but nothing above the second floor was occupied, there was just a big dark cave above. I went there because I needed to buy a bag to carry some of my purchases home in, since my backpack wouldn't be big enough. I saw a counterfeit Nike backpack (among other things, it had "Just Do It" written on the bag one too many times to be the real thing) which looked reasonable, especially for $5. The vendor saw my interest, and said "very nice, Nike really, really good". I said "yes, but not really really Nike". I'm quite sure my play on words was lost on her.
We had a couple heavy rainstorms this afternoon, and things are still really wet. All the street vendors have their umbrellas set up, and the rain from the roofs drips onto the umbrellas from whence it drips in big gobs on my hair as I walk underneath.
I saw two crazy foreigners on the street on the way to Kao San road this afternoon. One of them was standing stock still, talking to himself—I thought he was normal at first, since I thought he was talking to somebody, but then I didn't see anybody and realized he was a goner. Another guy was walking slowly, barefoot, mumbling, a massive shudder running through his body every few seconds. It's sad enough to see things like that as is, but in a strange country, walking out in the rain—you wonder how it comes to that.
I checked out the Kao San road area again, the young traveler ghetto of Bangkok. I liked it more this time—and I think 90% of that was the fact that it's about 10 degrees cooler now. Everything and anything is for sale there—all kinds of cheesy and nicer looking handicrafts, press cards, student ID cards, fake software (Microsoft NT, CorelDraw, PhotoShop, all for $5), fake North Face backpacks, fake Tevas, Ralph Lauren shirts, Levis, all manner of clothes. The young Japanese backpackers are so cute. They have these little hats on that I haven't seen any other nationality wearing—simple cloth or knit hats with very narrow brims. On the side of the road two Japanese guys were having their hair worked—it was being rastafarianized with the help of some glue-like goop. That was fun to watch. I'd love to know if they're ever going to get it out of their hair. It's fun to see them being all non-conformist and hippie-like, because that's just not something I associate with the Japanese in general.
In general I like the western style stores here quite a bit. There's one called Family Mart, at an intersection close by, which is just super—really brightly lit with these garishly blue-tinged florescent lights, prices always clearly marked, the staff is incredibly friendly, always nodding and smiling. They speak a fair English as well. They even have a trash can outside the store, which is really unusual on the street here—you can almost never find a trash can..
Got the runs again. I'm betting it was that pomelo I ate yesterday. All that handling to remove the skin...
I'm signed up for a tour today of the floating markets, and the river Kwai, where the allied prisoners of war and Asian slave laborers died by the tens of thousands to build a railway for the Japanese.
The tour so far is poorly organized. We switched vans after we got to a central pick up point, and I was told first to get in one van, then get out of it, then get back into it again. They were trying to divide up the customers evenly amongst the vans that were going to various sites, and were having a hard time. It was pretty funny. The van itself was not really suited for tours. It would have been great if I were 8 years old, and could have looked out through the clear bottom half of the window, but the entire top half of the window was covered with a blue film to protect passengers from the sun. That would have been fine, except for the fact that the film had bubbled and wrinkled to the point that you couldn't see out of it, so unless I slid way down in my seat, I was left with only a very narrow field of vision, downwards. I chatted quite a bit with my seatmates, Claudia from Germany, studying hotel management (28 and still in the first year of some internship—they have some massively long study periods in Germany, plus all the time they take off) and Lee from England, who just got a degree in nuclear physics, and is going to start a contract at a decommissioned nuclear plant when he goes back to England.
When we got stuck in the choking smog of morning traffic, and all the vendors come by at the intersections, selling flower garlands and newspapers, I thought of sitting on a chair on the back porch, looking out onto my private yard, with nothing but green leaves, and birds chirping, maybe I'll pick a few blackberries. I'm really going to appreciate that when I get back.
Our first stop was not on the schedule—it was basically a tourist trap where the trap part was a coconut sugar making demonstration, which was actually quite interesting. They had all kinds of demonstrations of each step in the process, each surrounded by whirring video camcorders. There were probably about 10 tour buses there, and 5 tour vans. The whole demonstration area was surrounded by lots of shops selling T-shirts and other knick-knacks. I was pretty surprised by the whole thing, but Claudia said they always take tourists to a place like that, because they get a commission if you buy anything. We did another stop at a similar type place, which was focused on wood carving. This was quite interesting as well. They had some fantastic carvings, very intricate, which would then be laid into a coffee table and covered with glass. There was a huge furniture store with heavily carved furniture, quite nice looking, but very expensive.
Finally we got to the floating market. It was funny—I'm not sure it ever had been an authentic, not-for-tourists floating market, because at this point that's certainly all it was. It was still interesting, though. The main thing going on was boat trips in one of those narrow boats, usually with an older woman paddling. They wore shirts with little flaps that completely covered their hands, I presume against the sun. There were big traffic jams where they all tried to go through the main canal. Surprisingly, I would say about half of the tourists there were Thai.
We had the typical tour group lunch—quite bland. I guess they have to work with the lowest common denominator, which is no spicy foods. Thank goodness they didn't take the absolute lowest common denominator of vegetarian. There was a British guy there in the restaurant in his mid-40's, drunk, whom they apparently allowed to run up a tab, because he was insisting loudly and annoyingly and repeatedly that he had paid 500 baht on his tab that morning. We were looking at each other, embarrassed at the boorishness of a fellow traveler. At least he wasn't American.
The English of the tour guide was atrocious. She was very friendly, smiling all the time, but we didn't understand what she said, and she didn't understand what we said, so we had quite a communication problem. It must have been pretty stressful for her—maybe it was a nervous smile. I did correct her once (I told her it was either World War Two, or the Second World War, but not World War Second) but on the whole we just nodded at her uncomprehendingly. I'll bet the reason that such low quality tours stay in business is because most travelers, like myself, don't ask around to see which agency gives good tours, but just go to a travel agency that has day tours advertised, and asks what they had. Therefore, a bad reputation doesn't really matter as much, especially since most people only do one tour anyway.
On the way back to Bangkok, we went to Wat Phrapathom Chedi Nakhon Pathom, supposedly the tallest pagoda in Thailand. It was like a little Buddhist amusement park, there was an announcer encouraging people to put money in the twigs of this funky money tree which was covered with 100 baht notes, people would kneel in front of it pray, then put the money on. There were also dozens of people sticking gold leaf onto the Buddha statues. I asked out tour guide whether it was real gold or not (I tried making it really simple—"Real gold, or not real gold") but she didn't understand, and told me, if I understood correctly, that people stick gold leaf on the statue wherever they have a problem—i.e. if they have a ear problem, they'll put the gold leaf on the Buddha's ear. Cynical me, I was thinking the monks must make a good chunk of money off this operation, especially the money tree. Plus, if it was real gold—I saw a woman scraping the gold off a statue and putting it into a little basket. Since they sold it in the first place and are now getting it back, they're making a double profit.
Had little mangosteen orgy this morning, finished off the half kilo I bought at the floating market. The mangosteen is the one fruit I've tried here in Thailand that I would actively search for back in the states. It's everything a fruit should be, wonderfully sweet with a touch of tanginess, with a flavor that's uniquely its own. The ones I had were about the size of a plum, and the same dark purple color, with a hard leathery outer skin, a softer inner skin, then about 6 little white fleshy sections of fruit inside. The edible part is pretty small compared to the size of the fruit itself, but worth it. It's quite difficult to get open, especially when you only have the nail file from a nail clipper. In my eagerness to travel light, I chucked my loyal Swiss army knife. I've regretted that decision at least a dozen times on this trip, when trying to peel a mango with my fingers, or open one of these non-easy-open packages they had in Laos.
It's almost a shame that I'm ending this trip here in Bangkok. Okay, obviously I have to come back here to fly home, but I should have stayed longer in Laos, maybe gone to one of the southern cities there. Bangkok is such an isolating city, and the best times I've had on this trip have been when I've had lots of contact with the locals. But in retrospect, I don't think there was really anything to see in Laos that would have worked in the time frame that I have. It would have also meant a lot more bus travel—massive long bus trips of 8 plus hours, which is exhausting. It seems that many travelers who have 3-4 months and "do" Southeast Asia (Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia) spend a lot of time on long distance buses.
I think on my next trip I'll go to Burma. It's one of those countries that are still on the edge in terms of independent travelers—not that it's unsafe, although I do understand that you have to avoid certain areas—but in that there's much fewer travelers. Even a place like Cambodia, which you think wouldn't have many travelers must have quite a few—I've many a few people with T-shirts from Cambodia saying CAMBODIA on the top, then a big skull and crossbones, then DANGER: LANDMINES on the bottom. Just like they say, "Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt".
This afternoon I checked out the Chakuchat weekend market. Bus #3 to the northern end of Bangkok, and there you are. Actually it wasn't quite that simple. I saw a bus #3 go by at the bus stop about a minute after I started waiting there, but didn't realize you're supposed to wave at it in order to get it to stop, so it just went by. There were two other guys, one tall blonde guy who was either American or Canadian, and another tall Asian who was probably Thai. It looked kind of interesting, so I tried to listen in, but I didn't really get too much. They were talking business, something about samples and contacting vendors in various other countries. business, something about samples and contacting vendors in various other countries. Yet it seemed as though there was something underhanded about the whole situation—I wouldn't have trusted the blond guy at all, he had a very shifty look about him. And he was chastising the Asian man for something or other. Then the blond guy showed the Asian a book, and I thought I'd finally figure out what business they were in, so I edged closer to see the title, but it was something about dowsing—the title was something like "The Art of Dowsing". I was baffled, and never enlightened.
The second bus came after about 20 minutes. It was only mildly crowded to begin with, but as we got closer to the market and more people got on it got extremely crowded. I counted how many people's bodies were touching mine, and came up with 5 at one point.
I think I know why you see almost all very young people. It's just too hard for older people to travel around in Bangkok. Riding the buses, riding the river taxis where you have to hop on board a boat that's bobbing up and down—all those things are just too hard for older people. Okay, I'm partially kidding, but sometimes travel in Bangkok is very strenuous.
I saw almost no westerners at the market. What I did see for the first time was fried bugs—large beetles that looked a little like cockroaches, inch-long grubs, another insect that didn't look familiar at all. I didn't see anyone eating them, though. There were loads of fortune tellers, older with young customers. I've seen lots of skewered foods, but for the first time here I saw eggs on a stick, and also eggs that were partially developed, with the chicken embryo visible. Not really appealing to me. It seems like about 90% of the people you see here are in long pants. I don't see how they do it. I'm roasting, even though I have on a pair of very thin and lightweight knee length shorts.
On the way back from the market I had a hard time finding the stop for the return bus, but I asked around and people were quite helpful. The ride back took about one and a half hours—to get here took 45 minutes. At first what slowed us down was stop and go traffic, but then there was a very heavy rainstorm. The main road that we were driving on was completely flooded to a depth of about 18 inches in some areas, and people that were waiting to get on the bus were standing ankle deep in water. At one point we were driving very slowly and I thought we were in very heavy traffic, but then I got up, and realized that we were the only vehicle on the road, and were only driving slowly because the road was completely flooded to the point that little waves were washing onto the buildings on the side of the road.
Flew to Seoul overnight. I was able to get about 2 hours sleep, which is very good for me considering that I never sleep well in planes. But I stretched out on 3 seats in the back of the plane.
Since I have a 9 hour layover here in Seoul, I decided to try to get into town. I love the high of being in a completely new country that I've never been to before. Also, it's about 30 degrees cooler than Bangkok here—ah, delightful!
The Koreans are a very somber bunch, not like the Thais at all. They don't smile nearly as much, they're much stockier (not fat, just not as thin as the Thais) and have broader faces. You tend to see more older people as well. They're also much more well dressed, and use cell phones much more (in the airport bathroom, a woman answered a call on her cell phone in the stall next to mine), and many of them are chewing gum. The airport is very clean and modern, and the woman at the tourist information stand is very helpful. She gave me a detailed map of Seoul, told me where to get off the subway and how much it cost, and where to find an ATM.
The subway was very easy to use and got me to the downtown area in about 45 minutes. There's large underground shopping arcades right at the subway exit, where there was a very large bookstore. Since bookstores are some of my favorite places I hung out there for a while. They had a large English selection, and as I would have expected, a large selection of books on learning English.
Right where the subway exited onto the sidewalk, there were 2 pairs of police, one on either side of the street, and all of them very young looking. They were everywhere in that part of town. There were also another type of police with black plaid shirts and black jeans on, with tear gas guns. I was baffled until I found out that the US embassy was right there.
Since I had so much time, I decided to try to see some of the tourist attractions in town. I walked up to one of the pairs of policemen who were at the subway entrance, and pointed to the palace area. They didn't seem to understand very well, asked each other where it might be, and pointed vaguely in one direction. I was a little surprised, especially since they were cops. As I was standing there, a Korean man walked up the steps and asked the cops what I wanted. Thus I met Jon Jingo Park, a very nice Korean guy who studied English 2 years in Medford, Oregon. He was quite rusty on his English, but we communicated quite well in general. He offered to show me to the palace area, so I walked there with him and spent the next couple hours with him. He even went to the Korean Folklore Museum with me, and bought tickets for both of us, and while I was in the bathroom bought me a little souvenir embroidered hanging at the museum gift shop.
He had an interesting story to tell about when he arrived in Medford to study there. Apparently he came on a different flight than the one that he was supposed to arrive on, and there was no one to meet him. He tried calling the college, but since it was a weekend, nobody answered. Desperate, he wandered around the airport, not knowing what to do (this was probably his first time overseas as well) until he asked a man for help. It turned out he asked the right guy (the man's name was Jim) because he took him home for the weekend, fed him, and in general was very friendly. They still keep in touch, and talk every week on the phone (amazing!). So that's why he was so friendly to me. I had all my sensors out because I was just a little suspicious that somebody would go so far out of their way for me, but he seemed 100% genuine. He's a freelance computer programmer as well, and carried around a notebook filled with code examples (I guess he doesn't have access to a computer, unfortunately). We went through an underpass to get under a major street on the way to the museum and there was a group of about 25 police there in formation in a corner. I was a little freaked out by that, but Jon Jing reassured me in his rusty English that everything was okay.
I left Jon Jing at the entrance to the American Embassy. I didn't really have business there, but I wanted to see what it was like inside, so I decided to ask about conditions for travel in Burma. There was a long check procedure to get in, they checked my passport, clicked me in through a couple doors, etc. It was mildly interesting seeing their security setup, but I could have gotten the Burma information through the internet as well.
After the embassy I walked down a major shopping street in Seoul. I noticed lots of American chains (Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, 7-11, Dunkin Donuts, McDonalds and Burger King). There were many people selling gadgets and knick-knacks on the street—for example, mini food processors, a mini welding device you just stick on a can of some kind of gas, a guy selling a ginsu style knife set (he did the old "chop into a 2" by 4" and then slice a piece of paper in two), a man selling a rain-off type treatment for windows, so that the rain runs off easier. All of these salesmen had large groups of men around them, watching the demonstration and buying as well. Only men, though—I was the lone woman. In general Koreans seem to allow for much less mixing of the sexes than Thailand. I also went into a memorial park which didn't seem like anything special—it was just a park to commemorate some landmark in their history. But after I had walked into it about 50 feet, I realized that there were only men in there. I walked out immediately—don't want to go around violating cultural norms I don't even know about.