Sunday, October 19, 2008

Two Short Days in the Emerald City

Sunday, October 19, 2008

“Come with me to the Emerald City.”
“Oh, I’ve always wanted to see the Emerald City!” [from Wicked]

There is no way to capture Bangkok in words. It is a mixture of beauty and grace, squalor and poverty. Perhaps as a result of its splendor juxtaposed against its crowded streets, it is even more magical than it would otherwise be.

Saturday started ominously, though. There was little coordination between the various departments on the ship resulting in a longer than anticipated wait to get our passports from the Front Office. All passports had to be checked and stamped by Thai authorities before anyone could leave the ship, but the documents of those spending the night off ship were not pulled for early perusal by Thai officials. All of us had notified ship’s personnel, but they still seemed surprised. Ed and D were patient, especially when every passport except MA’s appeared. We finally went ashore at 9 o’clock, right on schedule.

We were met by our driver and rode in a Mercedes minivan [ours for the next two days] to Bangkok, about a two hour drive. The Thai road system is so superior to Vietnam’s that there can be no comparison. The roads were decently paved, well laid-out and wide enough to handle the traffic, especially on a weekend. Much of the trip was on limited-access roadways; much of that was an elevated highway which we drove for about an hour.

After the smooth ride into town, we were a bit startled to see the traffic once we got off the highway and dropped into Bangkok. Traffic moved slowly, so we had a chance to see some of the city before we met our guide. We passed many parks; colorful divided boulevards full of plantings; Buddhist temples; and street markets, a staple of SE Asia. The sidewalks were crowded not only with stores and stalls but also with vendors with food carts. They were packed cheek-to-jowl amidst a sprawl of humanity. We also had our introduction to Bangkok taxis. They all have the same signs on their roofs – “Taxi Meter – but each company has a distinctive bright, almost electric, color of combination of colors. There were bright blue ones, yellow ones, green ones and our favorite, the shocking pink taxis.

Once we picked up Ka Ty [Kay Tee], we began the whirlwind tour of Bangkok. The first stop, where we met her, was near the Grand Palace. There may be a picture here eventually, but this area is what is usually shown when Thailand and Bangkok are pictured in posters or movies. The grounds include a complex of Buddhist temples and outbuildings as well as the Royal Palace. The most prominent building was the Phra Siritana Chedi, a large round building built in layers like a Dairy Queen cone topped by a spire like the DQ curl. It is probably the most recognized edifice in the mile-square Palace grounds. We spent a great deal of time looking at the buildings immediately behind the golden Chedi; there were three, each done in a different style, faced with glass tiles so that the buildings sparkled in the sun. Surrounding the last building were statues of elephants and stylized dragons and women. Again, words don’t really convey the beauty of these buildings.

We walked down the steps and entered the ante-chamber of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Buddhist custom requires long pants, covered shoulders and stockinged feet to enter the sanctuary. Before we left our shoes in numbered bins outside the temple and climbed the stairs, we tried to take photographs of the distant Buddha since photography was not allowed in this temple. We also saw worshippers dipping lotus flowers into water and sprinkling themselves, some leaving donations in conveniently placed boxes. Ka Ty baptized us, too, saying that anyone could ask for good luck, not just Buddhists. We all agreed that having another contemporary deity on our side couldn’t hurt.

The Emerald Buddha was much smaller than the jade one we saw in Shanghai in 2006 which, ironically, we were not allowed to photograph, either. There was a crowd inside but it wasn’t hard to find the Buddha high on the back wall. Ka Ty tried to explain some aspects of the temple and Buddhists, but we probably forgot most of it by the time we got to lunch. We did learn that one must never sit so his bare feet face the Buddha and, later in the day, we saw parents correcting their small children at another temple.

When we finally tore ourselves away from the Temple complex, we walked through part of the Palace grounds. Much of it is off limits to visitors and today there was extra security because the king’s sister had died. We all heard a reference to January but couldn’t agree on whether she had died in January or her ashes were going to buried in January. Buddhists practice cremation and a new crematory was built for the occasion. At any rate, only Thais are allowed to pay their respects and they were expected dress completely in black; it wasn’t hard to spot them in the crowd. The palace buildings a an amalgam of traditional Thai architecture and Nineteenth Century European. King Rama V wanted to modernize the country and started by copying European buildings. A replica of Buckingham Palace topped by a Thai tile roof gives the place a Disneyworld effect.

There were so many temples and statues of Buddha on today’s itinerary that they have all run together. In no particular order, we visited both the Reclining Buddha and the Standing Buddha. The Reclining Buddha is around 65 feet long and colored with the traditional gold leaf. The Buddha is so long and the temple so narrow that one can only see the entire statue by standing at either end. Buddha’s toes are always shown as perfectly straight, but he bottoms of his feet are marked into 108 sections [only visible, naturally, with a reclining figure]. Pilgrims may purchase temple coins to drop into 108 bowls stationed on the back side of the Buddha. Dropping the coins without dropping the coins is supposed to bring good luck, but we heathens decided not to do it. As we toured, Ka Ty continued explain what we saw, especially wall paintings depicting he Buddha’s life.

The Standing Buddha was not nearly as tall/long as the Reclining Buddha, but he was still impressive. Like the others, he was in a shoe-free zone, so we dutifully removed our shoes before entering the temple. We found monks rearranging the furnishings but never found out why. Ka Ty told us that monks may stay for a few months or a few years, but few stay for a lifetime. Being a monk is not a lifetime vocation in Buddhism but a phase many young men go through.

There was also a large standing Buddha outside. We could see him clearly without entering the sanctuary area, so we did not have to remove our shoes. We wandered around this small compound with Ed and D taking pictures, especially of a herd of cats since Roxanne is fixated on The Cats of Asia.

We had been up since before dawn and on the go since 9:00 a.m., so it was time for lunch. We knew that Ka Ty would recommend someplace for lunch but were not prepared for the floating restaurant which just happened to dock next to the boat we were to take after lunch. We could have done better here, but the meal had its high points. The food was offered as a buffet. We were careful to stick to cooked items although there were Westerners eating salads. We found spaghetti with assorted sauces; stir-fried veggies; chicken and pork dishes; and steamed and fried rice. Ka Ty brought us several Thai specialties we may not have seen or tried. The most memorable were the coconut pan cakes. That is not a typo – they were little cakes steamed in a pan. They had a coconut milk base other ingredients added; most of ours had corn and green onion tops. Yummo! The fried won tons were good, but these were sweet and moist and to die for. We hope we can find them when we get home. Dessert choices included petit fours sized cake squares and fresh fruit.

After lunch, Ka Ty tried to get us all into a long-tail boat but was unsuccessful. We had a boat to ourselves, but the restaurant boat was too high and the long-tail boat too low for MA to even attempt the transfer, despite Ka Ty’s pleadings. Ed, Roxanne and D went for the boat ride while MA waited in air-conditioned comfort with her MP3 player and Barry Manilow. Ka Ty joined us for the ride which took us through a canal off of the river. As boat trips go, this one was simple: go up the canal, turn around, come down the canal. The long-tail gets its name from its propulsion system. An automobile engine is mounted on the rear of the boat with a long drive-shaft attached to it. This makes it easier to use in shallow water since the propeller is far behind the craft, not directly under it. The name itself derives from the long plume of spray which is thrown when the boat is moving at high speed – it looks like a rooster’s tail.

There were lots of boats operating on this canal, so things go choppy every time we crossed another boat’s wake. We saw homes built over the water, often with no dry land beneath them. Utility poles were stuck in the water looking like trees growing. There were merchants traveling dock to dock selling food and a mail man is a motor boat. These houses, for the most part, had no road leading to them so the only access is by boat. We stopped for a water-borne huckster who paid a commission to our driver when Roxanne bought some tchotkes. There was even a land/sea fire station. The highlight, though, may have been the teen-aged boys jumping from the top of a railroad trestle into the river to swim.

We decided that we were Buddha-ed out and told Ka Ty that it was time to go the hotel. When we got there, she stayed until we were checked in and had our room keys, then told us that a driver would pick us up at 5:45 to take us to our dinner cruise on the Chao Phraya River.
Our rooms at the Marriott were magnificent. We got the last two river-view rooms [which we had reserved months ago] and could watch as barges, long-tails and other boats went both up and down the river. We rested, showered and dressed in clean casual clothes. We thought the driver was going to cal the room when he got to the hotel, but that didn’t happen. MA and D went to the lobby around 5:50 to discover that Ed, Roxanne and the driver were waiting. Away we went.

Once again, the food left something to be desired, but we hadn’t signed up for this cruise for the food per se. Once diners were allowed to board, we were shown to our table. As soon as we cast off, appetizers and then soup appeared. The wait staff wanted to finish the service in an hour so they could present the folkloric dance program. The appetizers were excellent, the soup was very spicy and the Thai sampler dinner had its ups and downs, but the view of riverfront Bangkok intermittently lit from one end to the other was spectacular. The most breath-taking view was of the Royal Palace and Temple buildings ablaze in light. Like the long-tail this morning, we just made figure eights, circling back on a short course to we could continue to move without really going anywhere.

After dessert was served and cleared, members of the wait staff changed their roles and clothes to present the dances. It was amazing to watch the girls bend their wrists back and then their fingers so far that they could touch the backs of their arms. There were four separate dance numbers, but none was recorded by us because D had left his cameras in the hotel room. We knew this before we left but decided that he might enjoy the show more if he weren’t fiddling with two cameras, both of which had been erratic on the trip. So we enjoyed the show, found our driver around 9 o’clock and returned to the hotel through noticeably emptier streets. We were exhausted and, therefore, asleep by 10:15.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

My God! We’re in Bangkok! The morning started around 6 a.m. because breakfast was being delivered at 6:15 so we could be ready for a 7:30 pick-up. We must be out of our minds. And the weather gods have failed us. We watched a rain storm approach from across the river and by 7 o’clock, it was pouring. We gave fleeting thoughts to canceling today’s trip and returning to the ship, but Ka Ty, who returned at our request, explained that we were going an hour east of Bangkok and the weather might be better there. How could we turn her down after she got up on a Sunday just for us? And she was right. The rain tapered off the farther we went from Bangkok.

We were heading for another boat ride [more on that shortly] but made an unscheduled stop on the way so Ka Ty could show us some more of Thailand’s traditions. We pulled into a roadside stand which might have been selling grapefruit in Florida or barbecue elsewhere. The workers, though, were demonstrating uses for the coconut. Ka Ty showed us how, as a young girl, she had had to shred the meat of coconuts by hand using a method that looked a bit like juicing a orange by twisting it back and forth over a grater. There were three pots of boiling coconut in the various stages of preparation of coconut brown sugar. We watched the last stage – twirling – which resembled taffy preparation, and we tasted the finished product which was just oh so sweet and tasty. The girls, especially, were delighted. Ka Ty explained that every part of the coconut is used for something. The fronds are used as cooking packets; the husks could be burned instead of charcoal [just like the fires in Jimbaron, Bali]; the wood from the tree used for artifacts like spoons and decorative cups; and so on. It was an informative and tasty stop.

We completed our journey to the next boat in only a few more minutes. It was still raining but not as hard as when we left. Once again, the boat was not hospitable. Although MA could have gotten into it this time, seating was on cushions on the floor so she could not have gotten down or up without some serious discomfort. We couldn’t seem to make Ka Ty understand that we wanted a boat with seats, even if they were low. Did I mention the rain? Roxanne and MA stayed behind with the driver [whom D christened Mr. Kwan] while Ed and D, joined by Ka Ty, climbed in and down. Although the seat cushions had been dried as we boarded, we were wet in no time. Ed and D were wearing the famous red rain jackets, but they didn’t offer protection for legs or faces. It was especially wet on the right side of the boat. We wandered through a real water town similar to what we had seen on the canal yesterday. Again, these were functioning houses with few having land access. We zigzagged through a canal system for 30 wet, bumpy minutes taking pictures [of course] before ending up at the water market.

The market was a morning market. Vendors in boats, most similar to the long-tails but without the giant motors, were selling everything from vegetables to fruits to cooked foods. There were LP gas canisters lining the dock. The dock itself was really several blocks of canal with open buildings on either shore, a concrete sidewalk available for the pedestrian shoppers. Many customers came in their own boats; vendors jockeyed for position; and boats full of tourists added to the melee. It was marvelous. This market is a morning market because the vendors ply the canals making home deliveries and sales in the afternoon.

On the way from the terminus of their tour, D and Ed did some “window” shopping while Ka Ty ran an errand. Predictably, D bought a mask for “the wall” in WPB. As they walked through more of the pedestrian area, he bargained for another mask to the point that the seller ran after him in the crowd. The selling price was only one-third of the original asking price and even Ka Ty was impressed.

Once Ka Ty found MA and Roxanne, she planted us at a counter after we got the usual Cokes. We sat mesmerized at the panorama in front of us. We were on the canal’s edge watching everything and trying to capture it digitally. Suddenly Ka Ty reappeared bearing food! She had gone shopping for us at several of her favorite floating food stalls. We feasted on fried bananas coated with coconut; fresh-from-the tree mangoes and sticky rice; and something which looked like a miniature taco but was made from coconut and filled with cream. She brought so much that this became our lunch. Before we left, the four of us filled in questionnaires about our experience for a girl who said she was doing research for her Master’s thesis.

We finally dragged ourselves away after a little more shopping and drove less than 5 minutes before reaching our final stop of the day, one which was not on the original schedule. We went to an elephant park where D and Ed had a 30-minute ride on Ralph the Elephant while Roxanne and MA saw a monkey show. Ralph did well – he didn’t lose a single passenger – but it was a bumpy ride made worse by the muddy conditions. Ralph kept stopping for snacks and tried to drink water from deep puddles formed in the mud. Elephants lurch sort of like camels, so our backs were sore when we climbed off, but we were glad for the experience, so much so that we bought the souvenir picture of the two of us and Ralph.

Once the monkey show was over, we traipsed to the van and started home. We dropped Ka Ty in Bangkok and Mr. Kwan made good time and returned us to the ship just past 3:00 p.m.

This might be a good time to discuss Asian plumbing. Many places, such as the gas station where we stopped in Bangkok this afternoon, do not have Western-style toilets. In some places, especially Japan, there are holes in the floor with no toilets at all. In other places, there are low-rise toilets which are only a few inches off the ground. Most of these have a place designed for one’s feet, but they are still difficult for the arthritic to use because getting up and down is difficult. Just as important, they are often unappetizing [use your imaginations here] if not outright unsanitary. When we stopped today, Ka Ty offered the women Kleenex as a precaution, but they were prepared, having been in many of these facilities over the past month. Frequently, there is no flush mechanism; the user must scoop water into the bowl to clean up. Toilets, women’s toilets especially, are not for the faint of heart. While the same toilets may be in the men’s room, anatomy has made life much easier for them.

And so to bed. Our last field trip is later this morning [it’s closing in on 1:00 a.m. now] and we have to meet Roxanne, Ed, Patti and Russ at 8:15.

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