Sunday, April 19, 2009

Songkran Holiday - One Night In Bangkok

When Bunny, Bobby and I planned this trip back in January and February we didn't know the exact dates that our school would be closed (yes we asked... I don't want to talk about it), so we made our best guess and bought tickets to Phuket for Monday the 13th and home again on Friday the 17th. Then two weeks ago we learned that classes would be canceled for the weekend before as well. We decided to spend the extra days in Bangkok... and that proved to be a very interesting way start to the week.

They left on Friday, but I had class until 7pm so I came on Saturday. I took a van from Rayong and on the way in I noticed one spot on the opposite side of the freeway where a bunch of Red Shirts had stopped traffic. I think the police or the army were also there and it was unclear what exactly was happening as we drove by. The last time I was in Bangkok I'd also seen some protesters riding by in a pick-up truck waving flags and playing music. Thus far the protests had been non-violent and easily avoided... this did strike me as a bit more serious... but we kept on going. Eventually the mini-van dropped me off at Victory Monument and I hopped on the BTS sky train to meet up with my friends at Siam Square - the big mall complex with MBK & Paragon and just tons of shopping.

All thoughts of the protesters were driven away as we ate a little lunch then had the extreme pleasure of watching Slumdog Millionaire in English in a plush theater nearby. It was amazing. Not only is the movie incredible (I'm in love with lead actor), but the theater was old school elegance, a big crystal chandelier, carpeted floors, ushers etc. Quite a nice treat, for only about $6 US. Oh, and did I mention the movie was in ENGLISH!? Speaking English and having people understand us was so nice.

After the movie, we met up with LeBlond (who now works in Bangkok) and went to dinner. We had amazing (and expensive) Indian/Middle Eastern food, between the four of us we ate two plates of hummus and four orders of naan... it was wonderful. Then we wandered over to Soi Cowboy for drinks. Soi Cowboy is very much a tourist-oriented street... lots of strip clubs and bars, lots of noise and some weird street food. It was fun and interesting in it's own way... kinda like Las Vegas - you have to judge it on it's own merits in order to enjoy it. We were lured into one bar by a fun little band playing outside, but immediately created a log-jam in the doorway as we came face to face with full frontal bouncing nudity.

After that we made the decision to only go to bars that were open air - so we could see inside them. We found one on the end with pool tables and settled in there for a while. A few games later and we headed over to Soi 11 - another touristy area where Charlie Brown's (completely awesome) Mexican Restaurant is. I'm glad we did because we'd intended to go there the next day but then found out it would be closed =( we all grieved for a moment then went to the British pub next door - The Pickled Liver - and chilled out a bit watching football before going home.

On Sunday we spent the morning at the Jim Thompson House. Jim Thompson was an American architect and import/exporter who came to Thailand and reinvigorated the silk industry. I'm still a bit unclear on what his deal was... but one thing he did was to take several traditional homes from different parts of Thailand and join them together to make one very big very nice house. He used traditional building methods to put it together and furnished it with a blend of European, Thai and other Asian furniture and artifacts. The effect is that of the "authentic" Thai house that every foreigner would love to have.

At some point he donated his house to his foundation so people could come take tours of his home and antiques... but then he went to Malaysia and disappeared. It's all very mysterious. In any case, visiting his home is a nice way to spend the morning looking at beautiful things. Oh... and the silks in the gift shop were gorgeous. Expensive, but gorgeous. But I decided not to buy anything there because we were going to spend the afternoon at Chatuchak Market.

Chatuchak was huge, hot and crowded. Portlanders can imagine the Saturday Market on steroids. Lots of arts and crafts, but also tons of t-shirts, jeans, touristy stuff, food, CDs and even pets. Lots and lots of pets... rabbits, dogs, birds, turtles, fish, and squirrels. Yes, squirrels. This was such a satisfying experience. Chatuchak is someplace I'd seen on Globe Treker when I was back at home still just dreaming of traveling. They did a think on shopping in Bangkok and they highlighted Paragon Mall and Chatuchak market... and now I've been to both places!

We wandered around for a good long while, got some decent pizza, stopped for drinks at a cool cafe and I bought a couple of silk scarves to tide me over. I swear I can't leave Bangkok without at least one scarf in hand. I've been a bit capricious about my purchases thus far, but I really think I need to start envisioning a plan for my future home and what kinds of things I'll actually want in it so I'll have a little more of a plan in mind when shopping.

For dinner we went in search of Mexican food. And here is where I express how much I love the internet. I LOVE THE INTERNET! We were disappointed about not being able to go to Charlie Browns and LeBlond failed dramatically in finding us an alternate. So I thought to myself... if only I knew someone in Bangkok who loved food and spoke English I could ask them. But I do! I phoned Cate from Cate's World Kitchen (an awesome mouth-watering blog btw) and she was able to give us directions to not one but two different Mexican restaurants near BTS stations. Yay! My first Ceasar Salad in months was so authentically American I wanted to cry. It was a beautiful thing. Thanks Cate! =)

Technically the big Songkran celebration didn't start until Sunday... but people were already in the streets splashing us with water. The first time it's kind of fun, but after a while it becomes a bit hard to maintain a good attitude about it. I quickly determined that the main problem was that I was defenseless... so I had to just smile and take it as I got splashed or sprayed.

In addition to splashing, people put clay on each other's faces to protect against evil spirits.

Fortunately, this is Thailand, so there were about a dozen stalls per block selling water guns and bottles of water. Once properly armed, I fully joined in the fun. Even though I got SOAKED I felt good because at least I could squirt people back a little.

We went to yet another seedy/touristy street and found an open bar to hang out in for a while. This was fun, it was near yet another street market so there was a lot to see. I'm finding that I need a lot of visual and mental stimulation these days. I think it's because I'm a bit starved for it in Rayong. There are just not a lot of interesting places to go here... and it's a small town so the chances of running into new people are pretty slim as well. Like right now I'm back at the coffee shop, and I'm looking over at the market where I eat ... watching the lady who said I looked like a fat Filipino set up her restaurant. Every once in a while people from the petroleum plant ride by wearing their uniforms. I may not know them personally... but it's all the same, very normal... no farang, no tourists, no chance of running into a random gardener from Sweden or anything like that. No excitement beyond what we can generate on our own after a great deal of whiskey consumption. The other teachers and I are literally the most exciting & exotic thing going on in this town. That is a very new and interesting sensation for me.

Now allow me to express again, how much I love the internet. I LOVE THE INTERNET! I've been keeping up with some of my friends from the CELTA course via Facebook. Usually it's just a one liner back and forth, but occasionally we'll exchange an email about what's going on. Having moved at a few critical times in my life, and having no concrete links back to the places where I grew up, I feel very sad when I get to know people but then they just slip away. I have no friends who've seen me from childhood onwards. So I LOVE that via the miracle of Facebook I can maintain at least some level of contact with people I've known different stages of my life. I like it a LOT. Anyway... some of you may remember the Brit, with whom I shared many beers and philosophical chats while on the course. Well, he's still living in Chiang Mai with his girlfriend and he posted that he would be in Bangkok the same time that I was. I was so excited you can't even imagine. We agreed to meet up on Monday before our respective flights home.

It was so wonderful to see him again. We met up for coffee, went to lunch, and just wandered around chatting. I just love him so much. We ended up talking a lot about the current political situation in Bangkok. We'd planned to meet up at Siam Paragon mall, but it was closed... and he showed me a picture from the newspaper - a bunch of Red Shirts climbing on an Army tank right outside Paragon. The day before while I was at Jim Thompson's house and Chatuchak Market the army had clashed with the red shirts right around the corner. He gave me a little insight about why this is all happening, but I don't feel comfortable going into it here. (Americans reading this - go hug the Bill of Rights for me, I miss it dearly.)

I still have enough money for an emergency ticket home, and he basically advised me - when XYZ happens, that's when the shit will hit the fan, and that'll be my cue to go home. I mean, Thailand has gone through a number of revolutions and coups in recent history and it's been surprisingly non-violent. So I still don't feel like it's unsafe for me to be here. But it was good to get the opinion of a Farang who's lived here for several years and actually pays attention to the news. We talked about a bunch of other things too. He told me I seemed a lot more confident than I had been even just a few months ago - which I know - but hearing it from someone else made me feel really good. It was soooo good to see him again.

All too soon it was time for us to head for our respective flights home. I met up with the girls at the hotel and we got a cab to the airport. Let me tell you, I have had some pretty ... special... taxi rides since coming to Thailand. As we drove around we realized that we hadn't really seen any cars on the streets all day - only taxis and tuk-tuks. Then it occurred to us that this wasn't necessarily because of Songkran... but that the police or the army had restricted access to the city.

As we drove down one street we could see smoke in the distance. That was unnerving to say the least. Further down the street we saw a whole crowd of people (normal citizens) standing around looking towards the smoke in the increasingly closer distance. They saw us and started waving at us to turn around and go back. So we did. And then we went down another street... and saw another crowd of people, this time a guy on a motorbike was driving up and down the street telling cars to turn around... he spoke with the taxi driver for a second... and of course we didn't have a clue what they were saying. I just held hands with Bobby in the back seat and tried not to freak out too much.

The next street the driver tried was fine and we were eventually on the freeway headed to the airport. I saw a LOT of police officers at the on ramps supporting the theory that they were limiting access to the city. We made it to the airport safe and sound (after having to call one of the girls at the office to have her explain to the driver *which* airport we wanted to go to). I called both my mom and sister and told them everything was fine, we were all fine, in another part of the city etc. etc. etc. But the fact was I was far closer to the action than I would have liked.

That night in the hotel in Phuket I got to watch a little BBC and saw footage of the Red Shirts and the Army having a stand off at Victory Monument. I had been right there the day before... there were pictures of the Red Shirts wandering all over the BTS station I'd been at etc. And the smoke we saw was more than likely from the bus the Red-Shirts had set on fire. I mean, honestly, I was never in any danger - but man I never want to be that close to another country's revolution again!

Two and a half days in Bangkok = enough excitement for a year. Next up Phuket! It's not pronounced how you think it is... but it probably should be. ;)

TAG: Code Sweet Chili Sauce... (extra spicy)


Bezzie said...

How relaxing and what fun!!! Although I do think importer/exporters should all be named Art Vandelay.

P.S. I was thinking of you and Peggy this weekend--I noticed my sewing machine was made in Thailand--ha ha!

Rebel said...

No, wasn't Art Vandelay in the latex business?

Stariel said...

Glad to hear you're doing well and staying safe.

So... can you please PLEASE bring me back a squirrel?

Rebel said...

Honey - don't you have enough in Seattle???