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Trip 2 -- Southeast Asia

Part 3: Thailand (10 Oct to 14 Oct 1998)

Exchange rate: US$1 = 38 Thai baht (THB)

10 Oct-13 Oct
Bangkok

A folk cafe; spectacular Buddha statues; remnants of a floating market; a snake show; Bussaracum; Patpong; royal barges; Vimanmek…

I found it easy to walk around Bangkok - the layout of the city, even though the streets weren't straight by any means, seemed intuitive to me. I walked from the train station to the Royal Hotel, an enormous building at something like an 11-way intersection. I made a note of what buses went by there - there were about 20 of them.

The rate they quoted me was THB 960, but when I asked whether discounts were available they reduced it to THB 816 on the condition that I paid for each night in advance. That didn't bother me; what did was that every time I gave them a 1000-baht note to pay for a night's accommodation, they'd give me THB 84 back and I'd have to point out the mistake.

Leaving the hotel was a lot harder than finding it. Since so many streets converged in front of it, and there was a lack of signs, I often went a few minutes along the wrong street before I realized I was in the wrong place. Such was the case when I went out for dinner that first night - I was trying to head north toward the river, and I ended up going south. Eventually I got my bearings, and I dined at a cafe with live guitar music. I had spicy shrimp salad and seafood soup in coconut broth, and I chatted with a couple of Thais seated near me. One was an interior designer and the other was an architect who had studied in Brooklyn and claimed he had seen a musical version of Good Morning, Vietnam. It poured that night, and I was so drenched when I got back to the hotel that the receptionist exclaimed, "Wow!"

I spent the next morning at the Grand Palace, an elaborate collection of temples and other royal buildings. The temples were the most ornate I'd ever seen: they glistened with gold, mother-of-pearl, and other jewels. The most famous item here is the Emerald Buddha, which is really made of jade. There's also an interesting museum of coins.

I had a quick lunch of soup from a food stall on the street, and then I made my way to the National Museum, which is housed in several buildings. The substantial collection of instruments, pottery, games, and prehistoric relics was phenomenal; sadly I didn't have enough time to properly admire the art collection.

My sightseeing for the day finished at Wat Pho, the largest and oldest temple in Bangkok. It houses an enormous, elaborately decorated reclining Buddha: 46 meters long and 15 meters high.

I took a long walk in search of a good dinner restaurant; I passed by a street market and ended up under a highway with nothing promising in sight. One place I went into looked like a restaurant, and when I went in I was taken upstairs to what must have been a hotel room; in the hallway a dozen or so girls wearing gobs of makeup and provocative dresses eyed me quizzically. This seemed to be leading to something other than a nice dinner, so I hurried out of there and went back toward the hotel. I ate at the Bangkok Room; dinner (THB 473) consisted of very spicy chicken soup (yes, this is why I came to Thailand!), prawns baked in a clay pot with vermicelli, and terrific watermelon shakes.

The Chao Phraya River, which runs through Bangkok, is used not just for transportation but also as a market. In the early-morning hours, people row to open stretches of the river and sell their goods to the people on the shore - and to people in other boats. I showed up at the dock at 6:15 to find a boat that would take me to one of these markets (the nearest are a half hour away from central Bangkok).

One other American was there. Heeding the advice of the guidebook, we were determined not to take a tour to one of these floating markets (the book said that such places were not authentic). Instead, we wanted to take a regular passenger boat. One man on the dock kept insisting that we go with him, but it was evidently a tour of some sort.

The other American and I did eventually get on a commuter boat, and we rode for two hours. The round-trip fare we paid was THB 60 - clearly more than the normal fare, as we could see others paying with coins that couldn't have amounted to nearly that much. We didn't see anything that looked like a floating market, though we did see a couple of people selling fruits and vegetables from the river to people on land. Even though there was no market, it was fascinating to see this way of life: people who lived along the river built docks next to their houses, and the boat arrived and they hopped on just as they would a public bus. The stops were efficient - when people saw the boat coming, they'd flag it down, and we'd stop for no more than a few seconds.

When we docked again, I took a walk through Chinatown and Pahurat (the Indian district), places noted for their crowded markets - some food, primarily fabrics. In the middle of all these markets was a bustling Sikh temple. I entered, removed my shoes, and walked up to the second floor. It was a noisy affair - people would come and go as they pleased, talking with their friends, and it was mealtime, so food was being brought through the halls.

In the afternoon I took a tour of the home of Jim Thompson, an American who helped introduce Thai silk to the rest of the world. His house is a mixture of elements of houses he saw throughout Thailand (in some cases it actually contains parts of former houses). There is also a neat collection of Thai art.

I walked south to the snake farm at the Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute, where people can watch snakes being fed. First we saw a snake slide show; then they demonstrated how venom is extracted (they get the snakes to bite down on glass slides that hold the venom); then they force-fed five chicken legs down one snake's throat. I'm not sure the snake really wanted that many. After the snake demonstration, I took a stroll through Lumphini Park. It rained, but it was a peaceful, pleasant rain. I then took a long walk around a woodsy area near the Goethe Institute. There were a lot of embassies in the area - it reminded me of New Delhi, but not as sparsely laid out.

A good restaurant in the area is Bussaracum, but it wasn't where the guidebook said - it had recently moved. Fortunately there was a sign at the old location that explained how to get to the new one. It was a splendid meal served in a very attractive, almost kingly setting with live music. I had a coconut drink served in a coconut; an "omelet" (more like a crepe) filled with "shrimp" (more like carrots), bean curd, and other goodies, covered with sweet dressing; soup with pork-stuffed cuttlefish (what a great combination!); steamed fish with coconut milk in a banana leaf; and a coconut-milk dessert containing beans, mango, and some sort of jelly (I didn't take as kindly to this combination); and a Thai wine (Chateau de Logi). A pricy meal (THB 968), but worth it.

Yes, Bangkok is notorious for the Patpong area (the two streets of brothels and sex clubs), and yes, I went there. It's actually not a very seedy place. The streets are more like a large flea market - people set up and sell little trinkets - , and the place is crowded with families, even young children. The sex places line the outer sides of the streets, and while there presence is obvious, it's not relentless. That said, as a lone male traveler of 24, I had to firmly resist offers of business - but at least they listened.

For my final morning in Bangkok, I crossed the river to the Thonburi (western) side, where there's a museum of royal barges. A sign indicated the pathway that led to the museum, but it was a good five-minute walk through a residential area of tiny homes before I got there. The boats were magnificent; many were covered with dragons and characters from the Ramayana and required 18 men to paddle them.

Vimanmek, a spectacular golden teak mansion and Rama V's home for five years in the early 1900s, is in the northern part of the city, and I reached it by the ferry that runs along the Chao Phraya River. (Why hasn't river travel hit New York yet?) Vimanmek's interior is in five colors: one for each of Rama V's wives. It also contains European items, a rhino horn, and Thailand's first shower. Nearby, the Abhisek Dusit Throne Hall had an interesting collection of ornaments, jewelry, and wood carvings.

13 Oct-14 Oct
Train: #35, Bangkok to Butterworth
(14:15; 22h 37m; THB 940)

Early on in the train trip to Malaysia everyone was offered lunch; the attendant went from one end of the car to the other, showing each passenger a menu and having him or her order on the spot. The menu brought to me seemed overpriced, it was obviously not Thai food (fried chicken and the like), and there were only three menu options (A, B, or C). Perhaps my biggest anathema while I'm traveling is being treated differently from the natives. The attendant insisted that the menu she showed me was the only menu, and as I was the first one in our car to receive the menu, I couldn't prove otherwise. So I chose a Chinese meal.

But I kept my eyes fixed on the attendant as she went down the aisle, and eventually another passenger - a Thai - requested a menu. I could tell that the one he received looked different, and I jumped up from my seat, walked briskly to the attendant, and demanded to know why she had lied to me.

"This menu is completely different!" I accused. It had English on it, and it had all those wonderful Thai soups and spicy foods.

"No. It's the same menu," she replied. How could she say this when it was clear that the two had nothing in common?

I grabbed the menu from her hand, looked at it for a few minutes, and told her to change my lunch choice to two spicy seafood soups. They hit the spot perfectly.

Another problem on the train came that night, when it was time to turn in. When I'd bought my ticket a couple of days earlier, there hadn't been any lower berths available, and so I had an upper berth - with no windows. I slept fine, but of course when I was ready to start the day and gaze out the window, my neighbor underneath still had a couple of hours of sleeping to do.

When we entered Malaysia, everyone had to get off the train and go through customs - they didn't have officers board the train as had been my experience in Europe. I helped a man from Guinea fill out the currency declaration. Go on to part 4