Bangkok, Thailand, May 10
Thailand (Part 4)
Today we decided to take a short trip to visit the Monkey Training College in Kanchanadit. Owners of a type of monkey called the pig-tailed macaque bring the animals here to be trained by Mr. Somphon Saekhow in the art of coconut picking. The training is a several month procedure in which the monkeys learn first how to spin a coconut off of it's stem using a box with a metal pole through the center and a coconut attached in the middle. Eventually the monkeys learn to work high off the ground, jumping from tree to tree harvesting coconuts. Once graduated, a monkey can pick between 700 to 1200 coconuts per day, earning it's owner a handsome income.
After haggling with the woman collecting the exorbitant entrance fee, we joined the packaged tour group of Thai people who were already inside watching the "show". Even though we were well aware of large cultural differences and the obvious economic benefits of having a trained coconut-picking monkey, it was still kind of hard to see the monkeys chained up (and obviously frightened and ornary) at the various "stations" in their training regimen. It would have been easy to dismiss the whole place as borderline pathetic, but coming from a Western mentality where monkeys are mostly relegated to cute furry children's toys, we tried to overlook the Pavlovian methods. According to the many newspaper articles posted near the entrance, Mr. Saekhow is well-known for his patience and kindness in training the monkeys in his care. To his credit, the "graduated" monkeys did put on a good show, portions of which were fairly amusing.
Finding ourselves several kilometers outside of Surat Thani after the show, Sue managed to schmooze us a ride back toward town on the air-conditioned bus of the Thai tourists. They drove us as far as their hotel and then we flagged down a songthaew to take us the rest of the way.
For dinner we again headed down to the night market where I proceeded to leave my small backpack containing my video camera at the KFG stall. A half hour later, I ran back to look for it and the owner of the adjacent stall greeted me with a "You!" and pointed to my bag which was in safe-keeping under the cart. Thailand is good like that.
This morning we attended the service at the Ban Don Church near our hotel. The service was given in Thai, but a very nice woman named Apple sat with us and was able to translate. After the service we shared a meal with the congregation and Apple introduced us to a local pharmacist who gave me some topical medication for my infected elbow which had not yet improved much.
After lunch at the church, we collected our backpacks from the hotel and headed to the bus station. Our next stop was Khao Sok National Park, a two hour ride inland from Surat Thani. Along with some connected national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, the 160-million-year-old rainforest of Khao Sok forms part of the largest continuous nature preserve on the Thai peninsula. The area is a major watershed for the Ta Bee River and hosts a large array of wildlife including elephants, deer, bears, and tigers. Khao Sok is also home to the largest flower in the world, the 'bua phut' or giant lotus (Rafflesia kerri meyer). Upon arrival in the Khao Sok area, we hopped into the pickup truck of a guy touting for a budget place called the Jungle Huts located on the road leading to the park entrance. Sue found the rustic bungalows clean enough, so we checked in.
We were only planning on spending one day in Khao Sok before heading back to the coast to catch a train to Bangkok so we decided to spend it by hiking to one of the park's waterfalls. From talking with some people who had been in the park the day before we learned that the hike to the Ton Gloy waterfall along the Sok River was a moderate 14 kilometer roundtrip walk. The only real hazard we were told were the leeches. Some people reported finding them on their bodies even after taking the appropriate precautions. Sue was not particularly excited about this news. In her words, "I can do cockroaches and rats, but I draw the line at leeches."
We slopped on a healthy amount of DEET-based insect repellant, taking special care around our ankles, as we were told it would repel the curious leeches, and then set off into the park. As the park consists of dense rainforest cut through with streams and rivers, it was incredibly humid. Before long we were completely soaked with perspiration. We stopped every few minutes to check ourselves for leeches, even though we didn't see any on the trail. (In fact, we weren't even sure what they would like like anyway.)
The trail wound through the forest along the river, occasionally providing glimpses of small waterfalls and pools. It gradually became narrower and more treacherous the further along we went. After about two and a half hours we decided to turn back as the dense rainforest all around was not providing the scenic views we had been expecting.
After stopping briefly to eat some peanut butter sandwiches, we headed back down the trail. We did not go far before I heard Sue yelling a few steps behind me, "Get it off! Get it off!" I turned to see her extending her arm toward me while turning her head away. On the side of her hand a leech had attached itself. It was smaller that I had expected, only about one inch long. I tugged at it with my fingers while Sue excitedly shouted not very helpful advice. It seemed to have dug in a bit already so I fished the DEET out of my bag and squirted a few drops onto the leech. It instantly curled up into a ball and fell off. Sue quickly retracted her hand and made it clear she had had enough of this park as she hurried on down the trail.
As we continued on I began to notice the occasional leech sticking up from the ground, attempting to latch onto would-be hosts. I pointed them out to Sue with encouraging admonitions like "Whoa, careful! That one almost got ya!" I'm not sure if the little guys can see or have radar or something but as you pass next to or over them they will stretch way out toward your feet. They actually move pretty quickly, sort of like an inchworm. I tried to videotape one of them as it chased after me, but I let it get too close and it latched onto my finger (which I was taunting it with) in a display of amazing dexterity. I recoiled in surprise and flung it off, directly onto the arm of Sue who was waiting impatiently behind me. This did not go over well at all. Fortunately, she managed to flick it off on her own before it had a chance to settle in, but that was the end of my leech research for the day.
After leaving the park we went back to the Jungle Huts to shower and collect our backpacks and then caught an afternoon bus back toward Surat Thani. We pulled into the Phan Phin train station around dusk. We had about three hours before our overnight train to Bangkok was to depart so we left our backpacks in the station's luggage storage and headed down to the night market for dinner.
The overnight train was an interesting experience. We opted for the middle of the road seating arrangement - a second class reclining seat. It was sort of like a coach class airplane seat but still way better than the third class hard benches. The train left at around nine o'clock and the first observation I made was the odd rythmic movement of the train. Besides being a fairly bumpy ride, it seemed to sway from side to side. It was almost enough to be disconcerting, but being tired from our hike in Khao Sok we were soon asleep.
I have some vague recollections of waking up several times during the night as the train would slow to a stop pulling in to various stations along the way. The station platforms were all shrouded in some kind of mist or fog with red lights casting an evil glow through the windows. There would be an occasional shout outside, dogs barking, and some terrible industrial sounding noises. I was almost glad that the mist prevented me from seeing very far onto the platform. It was as if we were making some ill-fated stops in the Underworld. Each time, I experienced a feeling of relief when the train started moving again.
As the sun came up, we made the last few stops in the suburbs before entering the urban sprawl of Bangkok. Ah, Bangkok.... From what we had read and heard from other travellers it was the epitome of oppressive heat, suicidal traffic, and noxious pollution in Southeast Asia. We we expecting the worst. On the plus side, however, since we were just coming from a month of sleeping in tents and very low budget hotels, we were planning on treating ourselves to a decent air-conditioned room.
Upon arrival at the train station we were pleasantly surprised by the level of cleanliness and organization. Within a few minutes we had found a tourist information officer who was very helpful and directed us to an appropriate bus to the Thewet section of Bangkok where we were planning on staying in a guidebook recommended guesthouse.
We found our way to the Shanti Lodge without incident and were thrilled to check into our immaculately clean, nicely decorated and air-conditioned room (for 600 baht, about $15 US). The guesthouse was a nice change for us and located in a great part of the city near the Chao Praya River and away from the infamous backpacker central area on Khao San Road. The only downer was that the staff was particularly unfriendly and unhelpful. It was almost hard to believe their lack of personality considering the quality of the accomodations.
We spent the day mostly just enjoying our room and making plans. We had dinner at a street vendor stall on our street and then miraculously boarded the correct public bus to take us downtown to Siam Square where we extended our self-pampering by going to the movies in an ultra-modern cinema (for 70 baht, about $2 US!).
Here's something really interesting about Thailand - the people really dig the royal family. Even though His Majesty King Bhumibol is not the political leader of the country (they have a prime minister for that), he carries much weight with the masses. So much is he loved that his likeness appears in just about every shop and home. I mean there are just pictures everywhere! And they all seem to be taken from some royal public relations press release because everyone seems to have the same pictures. Even His Majesty's image on the paper currency appears to be from that particular photo shoot. In one of the pictures (not the one on the money), His Majesty has a rather unsightly sweat droplet hanging off the end of his nose. I don't really understand this, but many people have chosen that very picture as the one to hang in their stores and houses in homage. Maybe the royal perspiration somehow signifies a bond between His Majesty and the common folk.
Anyway, at the movies we discovered another example of His Majesty's popularity. Before the start of the previews, a musical and visual tribute to the King is played and everyone has to stand. And everyone does, as far as I could tell. It was pretty interesting to see something like that, coming from a country where we've never had royal patronage.
After the movie our luck with the buses ran out as we waited for a long time before realizing that the particular route we needed was no longer running. Eventually we settled on taking a tuk-tuk (like an adult-sized, motorized tricycle) back to the guesthouse.
Our plan for the day was a quick stop at the Laos embassy to put in our visa applications and then spend the rest of the day sightseeing around Bangkok. The travel agencies in the vicinity of our guesthouse were all advertising visa service for 1200 baht, but our guidebook stated that at the embassy the price was only 300 baht, so we figured it was well worth the effort to get them on our own.
After a breakfast of pancakes (from a street vendor) and peanut butter (from 7-11) we consulted our enigmatic Bangkok bus map and set off. The bus we boarded had no A/C and in the midst of Bangkok's heat and snarling traffic the fumes were giving us severe head trauma. An hour later we got off the bus far from the center of the city. Unsure of which bus to take next, we set off to walk the remaining distance to the embassy. Aided by some pineapple from a street fruit stall, we walked for another hour to find that the embassy was not where I expected it to be. As we were standing on the corner of a massive intersection reading our map and looking like floundering tourists, a man wearing a shirt identifying him as a member of the 'Tourist Police' pulled up on a motorbike. Considering we were far from any touristed areas of Bangkok (a fact which I pointed out to a disgruntled Sue as the off-the-beaten-path bright side of our little excursion), this was quite amazing. He quickly had us sorted out and heading in the right direction. A short while later we triumphantly strode into the air-conditioned visa office of the Laos embassy.
After indulging ourselves in some of the embassy's free, cold water and exchanging cordial and knowing gestures with the other backpacker types filling out visa applications, we learned from the harried man behind the plate glass window that the cheapest 30 day visa was actually 1150 baht (about $26 US; with 3 days processing), not the 300 baht (about $7 US) we were expecting. I let the sting sink in for a moment, then confirmed this information with one of the other foriegners in the office. So the reality of the situation was that, considering time and travel costs to the embassy, it would now cost us more for the visas than if we had simply gone through a travel agency. We filled out our applications, attached our photos, and begrudgingly handed them over along with our passports and the cash. As we limped back into the blazing afternoon heat, Sue vowed to write a letter to the guidebook company to complain of misinformation while I just vowed to be pissed off about the whole thing.
By the time we had sweated our way back across town it was midafternoon so we decided to save a tour of the major sights (the Grand Palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha) for another day. Instead we caught a ferry across the Chao Praya River to the suburb of Thonburi to have a look at Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn).
We ate some peanut butter sandwiches in the park surrounding the wat and then I headed inside while Sue waited in the park, content with the view from the shade. The distinctive feature of the temple is a 79 meter high 'prang' inlaid with ceramic tiles and porcelain which sparkled in the bright sunlight. I climbed part of the way up the prang to take some pictures and then rejoined Sue in the park.
We took the ferry back across the river and disembarked at the Banglamphu stop, home of Bangkok's infamous backpacker central Khao San Road. We walked around the area to see if we were missing anyhing by not staying right in the thick of things and quickly decided that we were not. Khao San and the surrounding streets are chock full of hotels, guesthouses, cafes, and swarms of backpacking Westerners and overpriced souvenir vendors. We liked our quiet (by comparison) neighborhood in the Thewet section of Bangkok much better.
As we were surveying the scene we ran into our friends Wolfgang and Johanna from Austria, whom we had met in the Similan Islands. They were about to leave for the airport to fly home so we chatted briefly and made plans to meet again in Europe.
Sue and I walked back to our guesthouse, showered, and then tested our bus map skills once more by heading over to Bangkok's Chinatown area for dinner at the Royal India Restaurant. We were skeptical as we arrived at the small and sparsely decorated restaurant surreptitiously located at the end of an alley, but the fantastic set meal of thali, curry, masala, and naan made the trip worthwhile.
This morning we headed north on the Chao Praya River ferry to the province of Nonthaburi. Our plan was to visit the Wat Chalerm Phra Khad Wora Wihaan Buddhist monastery on the west bank of the river and then cross back over to the city of Nonthaburi on the east bank to search for what would become a recurring theme of our time in Thailand - earthenware noodle bowls.
After disembarking from the ferry at Amphoe Bangkluai on the west bank of the river, we walked up to the main road from the pier amidst a number of second looks and stares. I had the feeling that Wat Chalerm was not often visited by foreigners.
We hired two motorcycle taxis from the head of a long line (which seemed quite disproportionate compared to the number of pedestrians walking around...) and fifteen minutes later were strolling through the monastery grounds. We wandered through the strikinly white temple buildings, venturing inside of those which were open to have a look at the Buddha images. For a long while we didn't see anyone else on the grounds until stumbling across a lone saffron-robed teenaged monk raking leaves. Eventually we found the actual monks' residences, a series of wooden huts raised on stilts situated on either side of a long courtyard. We saw some monks sitting at the far end, but as we were unsure if it was permissible for non-monks to enter the area, we just observed from the periphery.
After walking through the monastery grounds we found ourselves back at the river so we headed around the outer edge along te river to get back to the road. En route we passed through some kind of bizarre outdoor riverside aquarium sporting several home-sized tanks of really ugly fish. Past this we came across a group of kids feeding the river catfish from the botom step of a stairway leading from the bank down into the water. They're quite a sight, those Chao Praya River catfish. The river is considered holy and so the catfish are holy by association (I guess). As such, people are feeding the fish religiously (pun intended); most ferry piers we saw had several fish food vendors. And since catching the fish would bring heaps of bad karma (besides being illegal), they grow to truly massive sizes (for catfish). As the children would toss slices of bread into the river, the surface of the water would erupt in a writhing, churning display of hundreds of long, fat, scaly fish fighting it out for the "offerings". I though it was somewhat mesmerizing, kind of like watching fire. Sue thought it was somewhat disgusting.
Back on the road we flagged down some moto-taxis and headed back to the pier. According to the guidebook, Nonthaburi is "known for its fruit and earthenware". We were interested in the latter. Now, I have never been one to take much interest in domesticated topics like earthenware, but I will admit that the noodle bowls we had been seeing along the way in Thailand were pretty neat. With two holes in the side and a groove on the rim to lay your chopsticks in, I was game to find some authentic bowls to send home.
We walked up the pier into town expecting to see a large outdoor ceramics market, or a bunch of pottery shops, or at least a sign in English indicating where the allegedly famous Nonthaburi earthenware was to be found. Instead we found a dirty and congested riverside city. We walked through the streets within a few blocks of the pier and found nothing interesting except for a large wet market selling meat, fish, and vegetables. Splashing through puddles of muddy water, blood, and animal guts, we weaved our way through the market. At one point we were admiring a large tub full of green mussels when the two girls working at the stand addressed us in broken English. Sue talked with them for a few minutes and managed to learn that there was in fact some sort of pottery market nearby but required a bus ride to a different pier followed by another boat ride to an island called Ko Kred.
We walked to the bus "terminal" (really just a street full of buses) and boarded number 36 as the girls had indicated, though we had no idea of when to get off. Fortunately, a Thai woman who spoke some English correctly assumed that the only two foreigners on a public bus in Nonthaburi might need some help. She wrote the name of our destination in Thai for us to show to the boat driver and when our stop came she let us know and pointed in the direction we should go.
We found the small pier and after some initial confusion about which boat to take (every local with a boat wanted to give us a ride), we squeezed into a very narrow, low riding longtail motorboat along with a bunch of Thai people.
A half hour later we found ourselves on Ko Kred. Again judging by the looks we were getting from the locals, I concluded that it was another place that rarely saw tourists. We spotted a sign saying 'Ceramics' with an arrow and followed a narrow road between houses and shops until we arrived at a small ceramics factory of sorts. Inside a large wooden building which resembled a barn we found a potter at work sculpting bowls by hand on a turning wheel. Beside him was a large pit presumably where the clay was dug out from. In the back was a large wood-fueled kiln and shelves of pots and bowls waiting to be fired. The rest of the building was filled with shelves and tables covered with finished products.
We browsed through the factory for a while and found some bowls we liked, but unfortunately they did not have enough of them to make up a full set. We had a really hard time trying to communicate with the woman who was helping us but eventually we understood that the town of Lampang in northern Thailand was a better place for ceramics. We added Lampang to our future itinerary.
We were a little disappointed to leave Ko Kred empty-handed but finding our way back to the guesthouse via longtail boat and public bus was enough to give us a sense of accomplishment for the day.
This morning Sue and I walked south to the Ko Rattanakosin section of Bangkok where several of the major sights are located. First we wanted to visit the Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha and then take in some other temples or museums as time allowed. In the afternoon I had to make my way back to the Laos embassy to pick up our passports while Sue did some sightseeing and shopping on her own. We planned on meeting at Lumpini Park in the Silom area in the evening and then head over to the Lumpini Boxing Stadium to watch some bouts of Muay Thai (Thai kickboxing).
We arrived at the Grand Palace to discover that Sue would not be allowed to enter wearing her open-toed sandals. Proper footwear was available for hire at the entrance, but Sue was repulsed at the idea of wearing shoes that had seen more feet than a Balinese pedicurist. We decided to split up early and I would have a look around the palace while Sue had the day to herself. This turned out to be a good idea since, besides saving 200 baht (about US$5) on the entrance fee, she was spared from the onerous task of following me around into every accessible building, studying every mural and architectural detail, and photographing every statue, like a good tourist should.
The Grand Palace complex was built in 1782 by King Rama I and boy, he wasn't fooling around. It contains a plethora of government buildings, throne halls, monuments, a royal residence, a model of the Khmer Empire's Angkor Wat, and the venerated Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha), spread out on a 218,000 square kilometer complex surrounded by four walls each 1900 meters in length.
I spent almost three hours wandering around the complex, soaking in the well-preserved atmosphere of a time gone by with the hordes of other, mostly Thai, tourists. One of the highlights was visiting the aforementioned Temple of the Emerald Buddha. I watched a neverending stream of people lighting joss sticks at an altar outside the temple, then take their shoes off and go inside. I skipped the altar part, but kicked my shoes off and slipped into the main hall. I took a seat on the floor among the many Thais who were kneeling and praying before the Buddha images, repeatedly touching their foreheads to the ground. I was expecting the Emerald Buddha (which is actually made of jade) to be massive, but it was only maybe one meter tall, sitting high upon a throne of gilded-carved wood. I watched the worshippers performing their rituals for a good while, enjoying the respite of the cold marble floor.
My last stop before leaving the palace complex was the the Wat Phra Kaew Museum. The best displays I saw were the bones from the skeleton of a royal white elephant and the seasonal constumes of the Emerald Buddha. They actually change the little guy's clothes three times per year (summer, rainy season, and winter) in a ceremony presided over by His Majesty the King.
I left the palace at two o'clock, giving me two hours to get to the Laos embassy. No problem, I thought, considering I now knew exactly where it was located. Then I proceeded to walk around downtown Bangkok for 45 minutes looking for the correct bus stop. Unable to find it, I hopped on a bus heading in the general direction I wanted to go, but it ended up taking me back to the vicinity of the guesthouse. There I found the correct bus (the same one we had ridden on our first embassy excursion), and an hour later I hopped off, facing the remaining long walk with only fifteen minutes before closing time. Fortunately, I found a motorcycle taxi near the bus stop to take me the rest of the way. It cost me 40 baht, but I made it to the embassy with two minutes to spare.
An hour and a half later, after another misguided bus ride followed by a corrective walk through sprawling Lumpini Park, I found Sue at our previously agreed upon meeting place on the steps of the King Rama IV monument. I was a half hour late and Sue was hungry, tired, and a bit out of sorts after being unfairly stereotyped as a dishonest, grubby backpacker type and folllowed around a mall bookstore by security personnel.
We walked a few blocks over to the boxing stadium and ate some noodles from a street vendor while considering the exorbitant 1200 baht (about US$27) entry fee for ringside seating (which of course was being highly recommended to all of the foreigners). We finally decided that this was probably a once in a lifetime activity for us, so we agreed to go ringside. The inside of the "stadium" was not very big, maybe the size of a high school gymnasium. In the center was a standard looking boxing ring surrounded by five rows of chairs on each side. They were mostly occupied by foreigners wearing pink or green VIP stickers and clutching their complimentary soft drink. We joined them.
Surrounding this area was a raised section of ascending rows of benches separated from the floor by a high metal chainlink fence. Packed into that area were mostly locals, all of them men as far as I could see, loudly cheering the fight in progress. A few men hurried among them, waving their hands and clutching bits of paper, presumably taking bets. Off to one side, on our level, a small band played traditional Thai music to fill any gaps in the action.
We watched a few fights including the main event. It was not quite what I had expected as none of the fighters appeared to be more than twenty years old. It was not nearly as violent as we had heard that it could be - there was no blood drawn and no knockouts. (Not that we particularly wanted to see such things, that's just what we had heard.) I thought it was worthwhile for the experience and Sue was surprisingly entertained as well. (She even pushed her way right up to the ring to take some pictures from under the bottom rope.) As a perk to buying the ringside seats we were able to have our picture taken with the winner of the main event. That picture (below) is now one of my most prized possessions.
Monkey Training College (1), Surat Thani
Monkey Training College (2), Surat Thani
Monkey Training College (3), Surat Thani
Waterfall in Khao Sok National Park
Bus ride with produce, Khao Sok to Surat Thani
Motorbike ride, near Kanchanaburi
Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn) from the Chao Praya river ferry, Bangkok
Wat Arun (2), Bangkok
Wat Arun (3), Bangkok
Wat Arun (4), Bangkok
Wat Arun (5), Bangkok
Wolfgang, Johanna, Suzanne, and Dave on the infamous Khaosan Road
Wat Chalerm (1), Nonthaburi
Wat Chalerm (2), Nonthaburi
Wat Chalerm (3), Nonthaburi
Wat Chalerm (4), Nonthaburi
Wat Chalerm (5), Nonthaburi
Wat Chalerm (6), Nonthaburi
Wat Chalerm (7), The Monk's Puppy, Nonthaburi
Holy catfish of the Chao Praya River (1), Bangkok
Holy catfish of the Chao Praya River (2), Bangkok
Feeding the holy catfish, Bangkok
Motorcycle tax stand, Nonthaburi
Traffic in Nonthaburi
Wet market, Nonthaburi
Chilli peppers for sale, Nonthaburi
Curries and spices, Nonthaburi
Kitchen store, Nonthaburi
Squid (cuttlefish), Nonthaburi wet market
Green mussels, Nonthaburi wet market
River taxi to Ko Kred
Potter at work, Ko Kred
Waiting for the kiln, Ko Kred
Wall Mural, Grand Palace, Bangkok
Mythical Guardian, Grand Palace, Bangkok
Phra Siratana Chedi (1), Grand Palace, Bangkok
Phra Siratana Chedi (2), Grand Palace, Bangkok
Detail from Prasat Phra Dhepbidorn (The Royal Pantheon), Grand Palace, Bangkok
Detail on Prasat Phra Dhepbidorn (The Royal Pantheon), Grand Palace, Bangkok
Temple of the Emerald Buddha, Grand Palace, Bangkok
Detail on Temple of the Emerald Buddha, Grand Palace, Bangkok
Do not pet the elephants, Grand Palace, Bangkok
Statue near Mahisorn Prahat Hall, Grand Palace, Bangkok
Chakri Maha Prasat Hall, Grand Palace, Bangkok
Guard (live) and elephant (fake) outside Chakri Maha Prasat Hall, Grand Palace, Bangkok
Bones from a royal and rare white elephant, Wat Phra Kaeo Museum, Grand Palace, Bangkok
A slow day driving the tuk-tuk, Bangkok
Putting on the game face, Lumpini Boxing Stadium, Bangkok
A prayer before battle, Lumpini Boxing Stadium, Bangkok
Measuring the opponent, Lumpini Boxing Stadium, Bangkok
Ouch! (1), Lumpini Boxing Stadium, Bangkok
Ouch! (2) Lumpini Boxing Stadium, Bangkok
Ouch! (3) Lumpini Boxing Stadium, Bangkok
Dave and the Champ, Lumpini Boxing Stadium, Bangkok