Sunday, August 14, 2011

One Night in Bangkok (AKA: I Can't Think of A Catchier Title at the Moment)

It has been a random two days. I suppose that is to be expected. It is Bangkok, after all. Not that anything wild has happened - this isn't The Hangover 2, and Mike Tyson isn't going to make an appearance in this story. I thought about letting this blog post be just a compilation of pictures, but the writer in me can't let that happen, so I'll give you a few words. Well, probably a lot of words.

Saturday morning I woke up early to head to Chatuchak Weekend Market. Chatuchak sits on 27 acres, houses 15,000 stalls and attracts an average of 200,000 visitors every weekend. To say the least, it gets crowded. I like markets. I've spent many hours combing through markets. But this was a market on steroids. Want to buy knock-off Ray Bans (or Jimmy Choo purses or Converse sneakers)? Got 'em. Carp? Yep. (No, not crap, though there's lots of it. Carp. As in, fish.) Puppies? Them too. And some bunnies thrown in for good measure. There is even an entire stand dedicated to bluegrass and cowboy boots... in Bangkok. Way to make a girl feel at home.

For the first hour, I could do nothing but aimlessly wander. When I wasn't on the outskirts near the road, it was dark deep inside the market, and near the food and raw meat and seafood stalls, smelly. So, often my main goal was to walk toward the light and fresh air. I do remember in my market daze watching a man bathing a kitten. He yelled at me when I took their picture, and I was off on my way again.

Once I began to think about shopping, I bought two bracelets - similar to leather cuffs that I had seen at Bliss in Knoxville for $20 each. They were priced for $5 each at Chatuchak, and I talked the guy down to $3 each. Score. I debated on a (decent) knock-off Tiffany bracelet for $10 (and probably could have talked her down to $7) and a (not-so-decent) knock-off Chloe wallet for $15, but I hate knock-offs. Even if the knock-offs are good and no one else knows, I know. Besides, often knock-offs are a result of sweat shops and child labor, and I won't support that.

After Chatuchak, I explored different neighborhoods in Bangkok. My means of transportation was the Sky Train, which is exactly what it sounds like - an above-ground train. It was very clean, efficient and easy to navigate. There is an also an underground subway, but I never used it as everywhere I went was serviced by the Sky Train.

While I was out, I stumbled upon what looked to be a car commercial being shot. Just like American commercial shoots - lots of standing around, hurry up and wait.

I then decided it was time to sample some street food. I quickly realized that many street vendors in Bangkok don't know much English, so I had to resort to sight alone, pointing and hoping for the best. I collected several things to eat and made a little picnic at Lumphini Park, Bangkok's largest park. In strange contrast to Seattle (and really, uh, anywhere), dogs aren't allowed in the park. The park was created in the 1920s by King Rama VI, and there is a statue of him at the entrance with a shrine of sorts at the base. As I approached it, I saw odd little figurines lined up and incense burning.
So back to my street-food meal, like I said, I have no idea what I ate, but it was good, and 24 hours later I'm still alive, so all's well that ends well. Afterward, I finally gave into the siren's call (Starbucks) for the first time since leaving Seattle. Not surprisingly, it was one of my most expensive purchases in Bangkok. Apparently they know how to take my money universally, even in countries where everything is cheap. (Starbucks and I have a love-hate relationship.)

On Sunday morning I woke up early to meet a group called Helping Hands. Helping Hands is an organization run by a woman named Poo. (Yes, really. Her name is Poo. Just wait. It gets better.) Helping Hands offers assistance to those in need by giving them the tools to start micro businesses. A large part of how Poo does this is by running her own cooking school. Poo markets the cooking school as... get ready for it... Cooking with Poo. Another of her catchphrases is "I cooked with Poo and liked it." No matter, her marketing tools work. It's hard to get a place in this class, and I felt lucky to be included.

There were seven of us in the group, and we started the day with a tour of one of the markets near Poo's neighborhood. She lives in Klong Toey, which she describes as having the dubious honor of being Bangkok's largest slum. There were no tourists in the market - this was clearly a local's only spot. She led us through the fruits, vegetables, meats, seafood, rice and insects.

A disclaimer: The kitten in the picture below is neither dead nor tranquilized and being sold to be killed. Just sleepy. The chickens in the picture below that, however? They are very much dead.

After the market tour, we headed back to Poo's house. Though with her business she has made enough money to move out of the area, she has chosen to continue to live there in order to help her fellow residents. As we walked through the streets toward her house, I couldn't help but think that this was the poorest area I had ever been in, and then I had the thought that this is nothing compared to so many parts of the world. Most of these people at least had shoes on their feet. Nevertheless, there was a creek running through the neighborhood with dirty, littered water, and most of the people lived in shacks that sat on stilts on top of the water with no indoor plumbing. Everyone had smiles on their faces as we passed them, though, and they beamed at Poo - you could tell she is their local celebrity.

Poo used to run the cooking school out of a small room in her house, but today was the debut of her new kitchen across the alley from her house where she had burners for all seven of us to cook. We cooked three dishes - Tom Yum Gai soup, Pad Thai with prawns and Larb Phet (minced duck with lemongrass). After sampling each of the dishes and eating the mango and sticky rice with coconut milk that Poo made for us, we distributed the rest of the meals in the neighborhood, met some of her neighbors and visited other neighbors who make jewelry and handmade goods in order to support their families.

After Helping Hands dropped me off, I went out to explore again. I had heard that MBK Center was a huge shopping mall popular among tourists and locals alike and that it was something I should see. So I saw it. I had a similar experience at MBK as I had had a Chatuchak the previous day, except this time it was a shopping mall on steroids instead of an outdoor market. Complete. Sensory. Overload. If there is something you can't buy, do or find at that mall, I don't know what it would be.

Outside, I caught an impromptu Thai teenage hip hop performance. It wasn't exactly So You Think You Can Dance, and the only music (other than in their heads) was just from the passing cars, but they created quite an audience.

I ended my day with a visit to the fish spa. The fish spa is where you put your feet in a bucket of water and little fish nibble the dead skin off. Sounds nasty but it's a novelty, and I can rarely resist a novelty. It tickled like crazy, and I'm not convinced that the fish did anything more than what a good pumice stone could do, but it was fun.

Off to Bali tomorrow!

Friday, August 12, 2011

They Say It's Your Birthday

I arrived at my hotel in Bangkok shortly before 3 am on Friday morning after a 10 hour flight from Seattle to Tokyo, a four hour layover in Tokyo (that was only supposed to be two), a six hour flight from Tokyo to Bangkok and a 30 minute cab ride. Because I can’t sleep on planes, I was approaching 31 hours without sleep. Despite the late hour, several hotel staff greeted me and swiftly got me settled in my room. I just as swiftly crashed.

After about six hours of sleep, I set off for what was originally supposed to be a very different day. I was drawn to visit Bangkok after reading Half the Sky, a book which sets forth major issues women around the world face, one of those being sex trafficking. Bangkok is one of the hubs for the sex trafficking industry, and many anti-sex trafficking organizations are based here. I contacted a few organizations about volunteer opportunities/touring their facilities/talking to them about how I can help and learn more about the cause. One organization in particular, NightLight International, responded and felt like a good fit, so we agreed that I would come in on Friday, August 12th.

About a week ago, NightLight informed me that August 12th was the Queen of Thailand's birthday, and their offices are closed. Because they are closed on the weekends as well, and I leave on Monday morning, it was not going to work out. I was really disappointed. Nevertheless, I will get the opportunity to spend half the day on Sunday with an organization called Helping Hands that provides residents in one of the poorest communities in Bangkok with the tools they need to start micro businesses (and I get to take cooking classes at the same time, which will be fun). And I'm going to takes some supplies to, and spend time at, an organization in Bali that provides maternal health services for impoverished women.

So instead of spending the day at NightLight, I played tourist. The city was bustling with preparations for the Queen’s birthday. Other than the lifesize portraits of the Queen hanging everywhere, it looked just like any holiday celebration in the States, but I had to laugh - can you imagine the same attention being given to Obama’s birthday? Does anyone even know when Obama’s birthday is? Ok, so I realize this is completely different - presidency versus monarchy. I digress...

I visited the Grand Palace first. The Grand Palace was built in 1782 and served as the home of the Thai King, The Royal Court and the administrative seat of government for 150 years. It includes a series of buildings, including Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha), which contains a small buddha made of jade (not emerald, actually), greatly revered and dating back to the 14th century.

Afterward, I walked through some of the outdoor markets, including the amulet markets, where I watched men studying amulets through magnifying glasses. The amulets have tiny images of buddha and each one is supposed to bring a specific kind of luck. I then visited Wat Pho, Temple of the Reclining Buddha. Most tourist attractions do not live up to the hype for me, but the Reclining Buddha did. It was impressive - the pictures do not do it justice. Before entering both the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and the Reclining Buddha, everyone had to remove their shoes. You are instructed not to point your feet toward the buddha. Also, many people were holding flowers which they would dip the petals in water and touch on their heads, kneel before the buddha and burn incense.

After the Reclining Buddha, I grabbed a taxi back to the hotel. Taxis are cheap (everything is cheap in Bangkok), and you can either ask them to run the meter or haggle over the price. The guidebooks say to request the meter when traveling from the airport, which I did, but I haggled over the price when returning to the hotel. I couldn't come to an agreement with the first taxi driver, so I hopped out and found one who would accept my price. Bangkok traffic is notoriously bad, and today was no different. (I would have taken the subway if it went near the Grand Palace, but unfortunately it doesn't.) We traveled down an entire street full of shops selling buddhas - tiny buddhas to life-size buddhas to giant buddhas. Mopeds raced by. Tuk Tuks carrying tourists and spitting out exhaust chugged alongside the cars. From what I’ve seen so far, Bangkok isn’t what I would call a pretty city, but it’s alive.

I had big plans for the afternoon, but my day ended abruptly at 3 pm when jet lag decided I was done. I thought a brief nap might cure the problem and had every intention of waking up at 5:30 to go to a local park to walk around and then go to dinner. Until I pressed snooze and 6:30 turned into 7:30... At which time I realized it was dark and pouring down rain. Oh well. I’ll be adjusted to the time and ready for a full day tomorrow.

As I sit here writing this, I hear thunder. I sat my laptop down and went over to the windows so I could open the blinds to watch the thunderstorm. Instead, I’m greeted by a beautiful fireworks display. Happy Birthday, Queen Sirikit.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Pleasure of the Plan

I've only just restarted this blog, and already I'm lagging behind. I feel like I have a really good excuse considering I'm leaving the country in six days. Travel preparations are consuming me. But as I check items off my to-do list, it seems as if the list only continues to grow. And those items aren't just your usual "buy mosquito repellant" and "pack fuzzy socks for plane," though those have certainly made an appearance on the list (and been nicely disposed of, I might add). No, the bulk of my to-do list is comprised of research. At first, it was the basics - flights and hotels. Then I dove into the logistics - how to get to said hotel on the first night after traveling for nearly 24 hours when I will be so tired I probably won't remember my own name. After that comes the fun stuff. Or at least to me.

See, researching a trip is almost as pleasurable as the traveling for me. Ok, that's not true at all, but I do love it. I enjoy reading about a place I've never been and envisioning what it will look like, later comparing that image in my mind with its reality. I pour over restaurant reviews and menus online, going so far as to plan exactly what I will eat. I research museums, parks, shops, cooking classes, outdoor markets, even subway maps, plotting my routes from Point A to Point B. I plan potential daily itineraries (and alternative itineraries, taking into account things like weather issues). In other words, I tend to take all the fun out of the spontaneity that traveling can bring. Except when I don't. Because for all the planning I do, sometimes the best laid plans...

For instance, sometimes I turn down the wrong street and I stumble onto a market I didn't realize would be there and spend two hours wandering around. Or I walk past a bakery that has a croissant in the window that looks so delicious that it literally draws me inside where I lose track of time writing and people watching the locals. Or I get completely and utterly lost where I get to experience a part of a city I might never have seen otherwise. The point being that some of my favorite travel memories have happened completely spontaneously and had absolutely nothing to do with anything I planned or could have anticipated. I would go so far as to say that the parts of my trips where I've stuck strictly to the plan... eh, not so fun after all.

So will I keep planning over the next six days? Yes. I'm a planner. No apologies for being me. But will I be on the lookout on my trip for those unplanned, amazing moments I could seize at every turn? Absolutely.