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!

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