Thailand (Part 7)
Once through Thai immigration we found ourselves on a chaotic road with no bus and no familiar transport personnel in sight. We found the other people in our group and before long realized that we had been scammed. Some people had only paid for a ride to the border but those of us who had paid more for direct transport to Bangkok were out of luck. After some futile efforts of pleading our case with the immigration officers, we had to bite the bullet and pay for a ride on a shuttle bus going from the border to Bangkok.
Along the way we stopped at a roadside restaurant where our shuttle bus ticket entitled us to a free snack and drink (actually "free snake & drink"). This provided a brief respite from my state of frustration until we learned that the snack (fried rice) was free, but the drink was not. I lost my temper and the scene may have turned ugly as I voiced my disagreement, except for the more level-headed and sensible intervention of some Englishmen who were with us. I calmed down and we carried on. However, my bad behavior apparently landed us on the driver's blacklist. Once in Bangkok he refused to drop us off at our desired location in Siam Square, but instead made us get out with the rest of the foreigners on Khao San Road. (Of course, he provided door-to-door service to the locals on the bus...)
We hired a tuk-tuk to take us to Siam Square, happy to use our prior tuk-tuk riding knowledge to get a fair price (50 Baht) and avoid paying the exorbitant prices put to newly arrived backpack-toting farang (200 Baht). The tuk-tuk dropped us off at Kasem Soi 1 and we walked almost to the end of the narrow road to the guidebook recommended Bed & Breakfast Guest House. A middle-aged man with absolutely zero personality checked us into a tiny but clean air-conditioned room.
Tired and hungry, we decided to treat ourselves to an extra-special meal at the McDonaldīs in the MBK mega-mall down the road. I was tempted by the "Pork Samurai Burger", but settled on a very-tasty-and-just-like-home Big Mac instead.
After a lame but free breakfast in the hotel lobby, we checked out and moved a few doors down the street to the slightly more affable Wendy Guest House. They didn't include breakfast, but the rooms were much larger and cheaper (400 Baht, about US$10). They also offered a much needed laundry service, as evidenced by the several washing machines and dryers cluttering the lobby.
After consulting a phone book and all available maps of Bangkok, we located the International Christian Assembly Church and headed out to attend the Sunday morning service. We rode the ultramodern BTS elevated railway to the Ekkama section of Bangkok and then walked quite a way to the church. (Distances on big city maps seem so small...)
We arrived at the church to the sounds of songs being sung in English, but once inside we learned that the church was actually Burmese. The sanctuary was packed but we were warmly received and room was made for us to sit. A daughter of one of the pastorīs spoke English so she sat near us and provided translation. She told us that 70% of the congregation were Burmese immigrants with only working visas and they were risking deportation by coming to worship at the church. I thought that was quite a testament to their faith.
After church, we ate some noodle soup at a little restaurant nearby and then Sue caught the BTS toward the Chatuchak weekend market where she spent the day shopping. I opted for the cheaper (abd longer) bus route back to the Siam Square area in order to extract the maximum value from the city bus map I had purchased during our first stay in Bangkok. After a couple of bus route miscalculations, I spent the afternoon wandering around the busy streets and coming across the campus of the prestigious Chulalongkorn University. I found a peaceful, shady to spot to sit and read and write for a couple of hours.
Late in the afternoon, Sue and I met at the Sizzler in the enormous Siam Center mall for our long-awaited meal of cheeseburgers, fries, and extensive salad bar. While blissfully stuffing our faces, Sue proudly displayed her market purchases, including a travel-sized roll of duct tape, a toy for our future children, and a small bottle of Dettol disinfectant to detoxify my sandals. We finished off the night by vegetating in the big, plush seats of the mallīs air-conditioned movie theater.
I spent the morning rescheduling some upcoming flights and then met Sue for lunch. We ate at a busy street food vendor on our street who cooked up some tasty pad thai. We also sampled a local beverage from the drink cart lady called 'kat-jeup' (or something like that) which tasted like cranberry juice.
After lunch we undertook another city bus / walking gauntlet across Bangkok to the General Post Office to pick up some mail and packages from home at the Poste Restante counter. Included among the packages was the culmination of a couple of months worth of overseas logistical effort between my sister, our man Mark "Singapore Sling" Hughes, and myself - a copy of our wedding video on a Mini-DV tape cartridge, playable on our video camera. This went over really well with Suzanne and, I was (and still am) hoping, would help her endure a few more months of rock hard mattresses and crowded overnight bus rides...
By the time we arrived back to the guesthouse it was late in the afternoon and a heavy rain began to fall. We watched the wedding video on the tiny LCD screen of our camera and then I headed out to splurge on a take-out pizza from a chain called the Pizza Company for dinner.
I spent most of the day uploading pictures to our website while Sue explored the urban shopping wonderland around the Siam Square area. We met for a dinner of street vendor noodle soup and Sue happily related her day's events, the highlight being a few hours spent in one of the mall's hundreds of hair salons for a mere fraction of the price of the same services at home. I, of course, did not even notice her new Thai hairstyle and was reprimanded accordingly.
After dinner we attended a Bible study service at the Reformed Church of God, a Nigerian church we had discovered near the guesthouse. Following the service, Sue returned to our room while I took advantage of the area's food franchises to satisfay my doughnut craving at Dunkin' Donuts and a recently developing mango craving at a place called Mango Tango. And, somehow, I even saved some for Sue.
The highlight of the day was a trip to Jim Thompson's house, located just a couple of streets away from our guesthouse. Jim Thompson was an American who settled in Thailand after World War II. Before long he had reinvented the Thai silk industry and played a major role in it's progress. His home is a compound of six old teak buildings set along a 'khlong' (canal) in central Bangkok. The buildings, originally from various locations around Thailand, were moved to Bangkok and reassembled with the addition of modern architectural features. Thompson was an avid art collector and his home contains a large collection of works from Thailand's Ayutthaya and Rattanakosin periods. Thompson, rumoured to have once been a CIA operative, disappeared mysteriously in the Cameron Highlands area of Malaysia in 1967. This is not entirely surprising to me if he had attempted a hike along the trails through the area using the guidebook map that we tried to use when we were there. We got lost but fortunately stumbled upon a road and hitchhiked back to town. He was probably not so lucky and ended up working on a tea plantation. Bet no one ever thought of that possibility.
We spent the day visiting the Sri Wittayapaknam school in Samut Prakan, a suburb about an hour's bus ride southeast of Bangkok. Sue had found the school through their website (www.sriwittayapaknam.ac.th
) and, seeing that they welcomed visitors, made arrangements via email.
We arrived at the school around ten o'clock in the morning to find a greeting board outside with our names on it. Inside we were greeting by Tui, one of the school's administrators who then introduced us to Richard Barrow, one of the school's foreign teachers. (He is originally from England.) Richard is also the school's technology manager and teaches several computer classes so I finally had a chance to release some pent-up shop talk.
Richard took us on a tour of the school including a few classrooms where the children greeted us with choruses of "Hello, how are you?" in unison. As we stood in front of the class the children were given an opportunity to practice their English by asking us questions and in turn answering the questions we put to them. Richard took photos of us with the students using a digital camera and they are now posted on the school's website. (See www.srinaiweb.com/photos/suzanne/index.html
Membership in the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts is compulsory for children attending the school (and for teachers as well). The day we had chosen to visit was a Scout Day and everyone was in uniform. Toward the end of the school day we watched the children assemble in the school's courtyard for their Scout lessons.
Richard arranged for one of the other teachers and a group of students to accompany Sue and I on a tour of Muang Boran, the "Ancient City", an outdoor museum near the school. The museum encompasses 320 acres om the shape of Thailand and contains more than one hundred replicas of various temples, monuments, and historic sites from around the country. We only had time to drive through briefly, but it was fascinating nonetheless. Sort of the Cliff's Notes for sightseeing in Thailand.
When we arrived back to the school, the children were leaving for the day. We spent some more time talking with Richard and one of his former students, Gor, who helped to develop the school's websites, as well as a few of his own. Gor also publishes parts of his personal diary via a column in the Bangkok Post. (See www.gorsworld.com
The students at the school are very interested in learning other languages, so when they have a foreign visitor a few phrases and translations are recorded for the school's website. Since Suzanne teaches Spanish, she was asked to provide some material for the school's "Learn Spanish" web page. (See www.sriwittayapaknam.ac.th/spanish/index.html
Late in the afternoon we left the school and braved the public bus system during rush hour to return to our hotel. Abandoning our plans of visiting a night market (which would have involved more bus riding), we instead settled for another evening of take-out pizza.
I spent the day uploading pictures to the website while Sue ran around Bangkok doing errands. As it was our last day in Bangkok we celebrated by again indulging our Western cravings with dinner at McDonald's and a movie. After the movie we hustled back to the hotel to pick up our backpacks and caught a taxi to the airport for a 1:30 AM flight to our next destination - Beijing, China.
I felt a bit sad that our adventure in Southeast Asia was coming to a close. After having spent five months in that part of the world, and half of that in Thailand, I could not help but feel a sense of familiarity. Thailand is a fairly easy place to travel and we had some (however slight) degree of proficiency in interacting with the people, speaking the language, learning their customs, eating the food, and using the various modes of transportation. We had spent more time in Bangkok than any other city on our trip so far and it had become a home base for us as much as any place could be. Coupled with the reports from other travellers of difficult experiences in China, we were feeling melancholy and apprehensive. It was kind of like the last day of summer vacation before school begins.
Posing in the hall with the second-graders, Sri Wittayapaknam School, Samut Prakan