Thailand 2: Bangkok to Ayutthaya

So, I understand now.  Thailand has 1 or 2 typhoons everyday.  At least this time of year.  Maybe all year.  I don’t know.  But I’m fine with that.  It’s dramatic.  It doesn ‘t help my ailing feet though.  By the end of these 8 days I may just have stubs at the end of my legs. I had the 4 blisters and stressed muscles, and can now add tropical bug bites galore, sunburn, and a stubbed toe.  But the show must go on!  I can’t make excuses when I only have 8 days!!  I hobble along 15-20 kilometers each day, and love it!  So am I a masochist, optimist, or does it just make me feel like a hardened traveler?  Maybe all three.  I DO try to hail taxis sometimes, but they all refuse to use the meter, and I’m just not going to fall for that.  The tuk-tuks are dangerous (I believe it was my moms friend who broke her back in a tuk-tuk accident)!  I’ve used the motorcycle taxis but they aren’t there when you need them.  I waited for the bus for 20 minutes and discovered there was a city-wide strike blocking all traffic (their govt is having “issues”… something I seem to be drawn to).  The next best thing is the ferries and trains but the rivers can’t take you everywhere, and their very cool skytrain is only in the rich district (which as you might have guessed, I am NOT).
But regarding the rich district (east side of Bangkok)… I finished writing my last email and went to meet my cousin, Brian, at his hotel.  Sadly the protests had blocked traffic wherever he and his girlfriend were, so they called my cell, and planned to meet another time.  I decided my feet were going to have to suck it up, and I went for the LONG walk I probably shouldn’t have (in the interest of the rest of the trip).  I found some cool alleys and side streets and a couple hotel recommendations for Brian’s return trip to Bangkok in 2 weeks.  One funny thing you only find in countries like this is that at a dead end, people just walk into the back door of a shop and exit the front to get to another street.  That just adds to the fun of exploring strange streets and alleys, making it an intriguing puzzle to fit together.  It was dark and I wanted to get a feel for the nightlife and city lights (a totally different look and feel from strolling down streets like Khao San earlier in the day).  I made my way along major and minor streets.  Jumped in the middle of busy traffic for some pics, and talked to the friendly folks along the way.  Half way between East and West Bangkok I wondered when the last farang had been here.  It was a long way from any sites of interest, and there were no street lights or people.  It got my blood rushing.  An hour later I made it over the river that divides East and West and was met by a huge crowd of protestors.  they weren’t marching, and I suspect it was the same crowd Brian had mentioned earlier because they were all watching a man on stage rant about the govt.  I missed my opportunity to get a free protest headband because I was too shy to ask.  I met some more friendly Tai’s (all you have to do is smile - if they say something in English, there you go), including a guy who lived in America (flawless American accent).  And within the next block I discovered the “other Thailand”.  Oh yes, Thailand has money.  No doubt about it.  The East side is nicer than any American city, or for that much, even the nicest part of Tokyo.  I would compare it to the nicest parts of Hong Kong without any random junky Chinese buildings.  It was all class.  Nothing older than 10 years, and all modern, artistic architecture.  This, I might add, is where the skytrain is.  It stops at that river I mentioned so the rich Tai’s and tourists never have to see the “other” side of Bangkok.  So I spent the next hour and a half walking along a street Rodeo Drive couldn’t compete with and noticing a LOT more white and Japanese people (tried my hand at speaking to a couple Japanese, but they just weren’t havin’ it).  Prada, Gucci, Starfucks, Hardrock, Hyatt, Burberry, and all the others were here.  Boring.  The one cool thing there is that the youths (probably rich kids rebelling) have set up shop on the shopping level of the skytrain stations.  They hang out in groups and pull off the sickest breakdancing moves.  This must be where they practice for street shows like the one I saw on Khao San road.  Cool.  Also the national stadium has a big Tokyu sign on it just like Shibuya station in Tokyo.  Kind of felt like home for a second.  I WANTED to get through there to the Little Arabia they have so I could try some Muslim, and Middle Easter food, but as soon as I felt the a rain drop I knew I should get on the train and make my long way home.  Sure enough I got to the nearest skytrain station, and the heaven opened up again.  Luckily at the “gentrification line” (the river) the taxi I flagged down was willing to use the meter.  He was one of the few Tai’s I had to work on to get a smile.  Knowing the names of the temples (Wats) and parks we past didn’t impress. I had to fall back on the old standby of practicing language. That sure made him laugh.  But it helped me get the basics down (greetings, thank-you’s, etc).  Pretty much everything seems to have a different way to say it if it’s to a man or a woman.  Again, roads were closed due to protests (Are these 24-hour affairs?!  Rain or shine?).  So we had a nice long chat… about how much I suck at Thai.
I had my third cold shower.  Fell asleep crooked on the bed.  I was exhausted and my feet hated me.  They would get their revenge!
This morning I woke up nice and LATE.  Not my style, but I figured even if my mind was ready to hit the road, my feet would make me pay dearly.  Today I knew I would check out of Bangkok (though I did not know where to) so I packed my standard day bag and boat bag (I travel with a boat bag inside my backpack - a useful marriage for rain/arachnids/day storage) and left the boat bag at the GH.  This is my first time to Thailand and I’m still not sure how much to trust these people.  They are PERFECTLY nice, but that doesn’t mean they are trustworthy.  So when the owner told me to just leave it next to the door at the entrance I was skeptical.  I had a cable lock on it but there was nothing to attach it to.  I didn’t like the situation, but without dragging the story on, it was still there in the evening, so I guess she knew it would be safe.  Whatever.  I don’t know how things work here.  Best not to second-guess.
Brian called while I was having my excellent GH spicy noodle breakfast (the owner was thrilled I asked for it spicy).  It was already 11 and, knowing me, he laughed that I was getting such a late start.  He had invited me to a Thai boxing match the night before, but I bailed because it was a whopping $45 (actually it was supposed to be $20 - which I also wouldn;t have spent).  He told me how awesome it was (he used to be a boxer, and these were FRONT row seats) and we planned on meeting later for lunch or dinner.  It never happened due to protests, and my leaving Bangkok early.
I made a plan to use the ferry for the first time and see “THE sites”.  I missed them the day before because of odd closing times.  So this time I wandered around the water front and jumped on a ferry to my first Wat (as in “Ankor Wat”, across the border in Cambodia, which I’m sure you’ve all heard of).  This one had the famous Reclining Buddha.  Any image of Buddha is a snapshot of a moment of his life.  For instance, the reclining Buddha would be the moment just before his ultimate state of nirvana.  Sitting, standing, and walking all have universal meanings. So, this Buddha… was FUCKING HUGE!!!  I’m sorry.  I’ve seen some BIG Buddha’s in Asia.  But this guy was memorable.  The biggest I’ve seen was bigger, but carved out of a cliff face in China, so that’s seems like cheating.  This thing was GOLD, and in a building.  Admittedly, the whole “what Buddha is biggest” thing does seem silly. In my life (and yours presumably) it’s irrelevant.  But once you start seeing these big Buddha’s, you start keeping track.  And some are just beautiful.  I don’t care about Buddhism, but art is art. 
So then I wandered around the grounds.  This was the oldest Wat (and area for that matter) in Bangkok.  And the buildings were magnificent.  I’ll have to be lame and say a picture paints a thousand words.  I can’t really describe them.  Lots of gold.  Lots and lots of gold.  And many pointy things on the roofs.  And domed things made of bright tiles.  See?  I can’t explain it.  Mostly because I (and you) don’t know any of the words for these architectural details.  But I can say it was awesome, and it was HOT.  This is about where I suspect I got the massive sunburn I’m wearing now.  But carry on!  Next to this “oldest Wat” (Wat Pho A if you want to be technical about it) is the Palace and another Wat.  Everyone says the Palace because I think that’s easier to remember than the name of the Wat (which slips my mind).  But in truth, the Palace is closed to visitors, and the Wat is the main attraction… in Thailand!!  This is THE Wat to see in all of Thailand.  For Thai’s it’s because of the huge solid emerald Buddha and maybe some of the ridiculous amounts of gold.  For the rest of us its for the ridiculous amounts of gold, and.. well, no, that’s it.   The gold.  Gold is a funny thing.  Why do we love it?  It seems every culture in the world loves gold, and not because it’s worth something.  Just because it’s beautiful (and doesn’t rust…).  Well Thailand must have a lot of gold, because they are always adding more gold to this temple.  ALWAYS!!  There was gold leaf all over the sidewalks and stuff because it had flaked off roofs and blown away.  Must be cheap stuff here?  People are always adding gold leaf to this temple.  Ridiculous gold.
I was walking along the gold-leaf-covered sidewalks and a bunch of girls smiled at me as usual, so I smiled back as usual.  A minute later they approached me, and my defenses went up a little.  I know that Thai’s are too shy to approach farang, unless they want something.  Usually they are touts.  But all they asked for was an interview, and they were definitely university age, and all in their university outfits, so I agreed.  I thought it would just be a random interview, but some guy pulled out a video camera, and asked me to introduce myself. I was caught off guard.  But they were smiles and giggles, and thought it was funny I said America doesn’t have any history (a blatant lie, but comparatively true when you’re in ASIA!!).  They took their picture with me, and gave me a small gift flute.  Very unexpected.
As for the Buddha?  It was green.  Emerald green I suppose.
Oh, and not that it’s important, but inside the Emerald Buddha building you have to take your shoes off (as usual) and can NOT point your feet at the Buddha (as usual).  Well, I’ve been to a few countries where this is the case, but I’ve never been able to completely understand what “pointing” your feet is.  Is it aiming the soles of your feet towards someone, or the toes?  It may sound insignificant, but these are the issues you have to deal with on this side of the globe.  Tough, I know.  Well, either way, the way you are told (in every guidebook and building entry sign) to not offend is to sit on your knees.  This way your feet are definitely pointing behind you.  Well, low and behold, the farang right up front in the crowd of about 100, is sprawled out with his feet towards Buddha, and leaning back on his hands while wiggling his toes!  Ummm… I’d say that might offend.  What’s wrong with us farang?
I took a look at my map, and after much thought decided my feet hurt too much to justify seeing some of the other minor sites (such as Little Arabia).  I had seen the most important ones, and the ones I most wanted to see, and I had learned the city pretty well by literally walking the entire span of it.  It was time to make an exit strategy.  My friend, Jeff, back in Japan had highly recommended I go to a famous city of water where they have a floating market.  He showed me his pictures from his last visit, and I was sold.  But you had to go there the night before to see the market early in the morning.  It was sort of south, and a 2-hour bus ride if there WEREN’T protests.  Since I was going north, and would just have to come back through Bangkok the next day to get up to Ayuthaya (old capitol), I decided I’d see it on another trip to Thailand when I go south to the islands.
I made my way through a street-food-mini-city and sampled juices, noodles soups, spicy/sweet pizza, and a baked good kind of like a fruit cake cinnamon roll without the roll or cinnamon (just the sweet bread).  I LOVE THAI FOOD!  A tout tricked me into thinking she worked for the ferry service so when I realized she didn’t I was wary of her recommendation to go to pier 9.  The pier next to it seemed more likely to me for some reason.  Before I boarded I asked a man if it went to Swayathusam (or something) and he said yes… but not in English.  You know… if someone can’t even say yes in English to your question, they probably didn’t understand the question in the first place.  Well sure enough this boat was some sort of express boat, and took me way past my pier.  The only upside is that no one ever came to collect my fair.  I don’t know what kind of boat it was - the free, but inconvenient one I guess.  So I jumped on a motorcycle taxi and went back to my GH to collect my boat-bag and chat it up with the owner. Her GH around the corner had become so successful (thanks to Lonely Planet guide books) that she had just built this place and was adding an addition now.  I asked about her most common guests’ nationality and we talked about why Americans don’t come to Thailand.  She wanted to know all about America for some reason.  She must REALLY never have had an American guest who bothered to talk to her.  I felt like I was talking to my Nepali kids.  She really knew NOTHING about America.  Cool!!  I offered to help with her website if she needed and re-wrote her confusing sign that got me lost on my first night.  Then it was off to the train station and to Ayuthaya.
The bus stop was right nearby but I didn’t find that out until I asked 2 different police men.  I asked a taxi, but as usual, they weren’t willing to use their meter.  I pointed out there was a police officer right behind him (it’s illegal to not use the meter) but he just drove off.  I found the bus stop but after just 5 minutes, a protest rally came into my part of town and stopped everything.  Trucks were parked sideways on either end of the street.  Everyone at the bus stop walked off.  Shit!  So now I couldn’t even catch a tuk-tuk or motorcycle.  The city was shut down.  I thought it would be smart to take the ferry most of the way, and maybe catch a motorcycle the last 2 kilometers.  I made my way to the pier, but was stopped in my tracks by an amazing festival.  They had all the Thai costumes you can imagine.  There was dancing and music, and craft making.  Tons of News crews, and important looking people.  Funny enough, is wasn’t a mob scene, and there weren’t even many farang there.  As usual the Thai’s were overzealous to talk to me, and smile their beautiful smiles.  I kept coming back to an ornamental group who played music and danced.  they asked if I would drink some of their wine.  It took me a few questions to understand what they were offering, because all they had was a gallon-sized clay vase in a yellow basket.  At the top of the vase were 2 thick incense sticks and a bunch of yellow flowers.  I thought maybe they wanted me to take this huge gift!  But really hoped it was a more simple offer.  Sure enough, the incense sticks were actually locally made straws and under the flowers was a sake-like wine (rice wine).  It was smooth, and slightly less alcoholic than Japanese sake.  They were psyched that I liked it.  I found a group of traditionally dress kids playing traditional games and made them all laugh by getting on my knees and taking pictures up at them.  Cute kids here in Thailand.
Well, again, I felt a rain drop and made my way to the pier.  Before I could even get there (only a 20 second walk) it was pouring!  I was squeezed up against a river factory fence with a bunch of Thai’s.  The factory workers rushed over and unlocked the gates so we could stay dry in the factory.  It smelled like gasoline and all the workers were smoking.  Exciting!!  The lighting, thunder, and monsoon rains were very beautiful (now that I was in a dry place to watch it).  This time after only 10 minutes there was a gap in rain and I caught a ferry.  The rain picked up again when I was in the ferry, but they were well-prepared for rain, so not one drop got inside the boat.  Everyone around me kept me updated as to the current status of stops before my pier (”sir, your destination is in 3 stops”, “next stop sir”, “this stop. you get off here”). The Thai’s are so nice.
It had stopped raining, but my pier was definitely not a major one.  In truth the next one was closer to the train station, but my map didn’t have it’s name marked, so I just went with what was least confusing.  Well I started to walk.  And walk.  And walk.  After 30 minutes on the same road I asked a tuk-tuk.  But he wouldn’t be haggled down.  Eventually I turned onto a likely road and realized I’d been here on my walk to the East side.  I went WAY to far.  Oh well, at least I put the puzzle pieces together, and was getting better acquainted with the major roads of Bangkok.  I asked some beautiful girls and they understood, but were pointing all over the place.  The next woman I asked (ridiculously beautiful) also said she wasn’t sure but maybe it was where I thought it was.  I told her she was very beautiful and she gasped, but then assumed she misheard me.  I guess it’s kind of like Tokyo, where none of the locals know where anything is.  They know how to get to work, and back home, and that’s as much as they learn about their city.  Finally RIGHT next to the station I asked 2 more girls and they just pointed.  I just had to see how close I could get with locals still not knowing.  That last woman was standing 3 blocks away from the biggest train station in Bangkok, and she still wasn’t sure where it was.  Ha!
Well, the train station was a short-lived experience, but very memorable.  Not because of it’s grandeur but because of the unprecedented service.  All I had to do was ask 1 person, and I was consecutively handed off to the appropriate people and eventually to a fast walking policeman with the tightest shirt I’ve ever seen.  He practically ran to the ticket counter, cut the line, and gave me the ticket for 50 cents.  Then he escorted me to the train.  Smiling all the way.  I was floored.  I had to tell him how great Thai people are and how helpful, and how you can’t find police like this in any other country (even Japan, who’s police are practically tourist info).  I got on my local commuter train and packed in with the locals.  They were all smiles from ear to ear of course.  I had seen a young girl in a yellow shirt sticking her head out her train window when I arrived at the station.  I smiled as I walked by and she lit up.  She was on this train, and we exchanged a million smiles over the journey.  Just looking in her direction I couldn’t help but notice she was staring at me, so I’d look and she’d get all smiley.  As we got further from Bangkok more and more suburban and rural locals got on, and my face began to hurt from all the smiling.  At the airport I started to get off, but the conductor (who had remembered my destination) told me to stay on.  He said my station name, and from then on I was getting constant updates from the smiling faces around me.  People were particularly sure to let me know how many more stops as they got off themselves to make sure they helped before they left.  SO FRIENDLY!!!  Two hours into the journey the crowded car was stopping less, and in the Monks section a slew of school boys were sprawled all over the floor.  I took a picture but forgot my digital camera sends out a red light in low-light conditions.  So they opened their eyes, and all laughed, and I made some more friends.  When I got off the train, I actually kinda felt I’d miss my fellow passengers.  I was saying bye to everyone, and shaking hands, and waving as the train pulled away.  This country is so friendly.
I know that much of this is because I’m farang, and it has not eluded me that this special treatment isn’t very fair (ie cutting in a line of Thai’s to help the farang get his train ticket).  But there are 2 sides to the coin.  And I have seen this before, and at first it really bothered me.  I tried in vein to refuse to cut in line in China just because everyone was telling me to.  It’s one of those minor cultural issues that don’t have a good answer.  But I just wanted to make it clear I’m not prancing all around this poor country laughing at lines, and expecting generous smiles and gifts.
It was supposed to be a 1 1/2 hour train ride, but we left an hour late, and took an hour to get past protestors on the tracks, so instead of arriving at 8:30, I arrived at 10:30.  Ayuthaya is an island, and you have to take a dodgy ferry across the brown, tree limb-filled river.  The “pier” was a joke.  Just a falling over, sinking stack of wood.  The drunken captain rams the pier, and you jump on the bow of his large canoe, and sit next to his sketchy sleeping dog.  Funny.  Well, here I am in Ayuthaya.  This place is great from what I can see (and I haven’t even see the city yet).  Ayuthaya was the old capitol and was an important trading post.  But the Burmese got their hands on it and plundered it 250 years ago.  It’s not a city like Bangkok.  It’s like Pokhora in Nepal really.  A laid back “3rd-world resort” town with amazing ruins all around.  Think Ankor Wat or Machu Pichu, but spread out over 9 square kilometers on the island and many more off the island.  Needless to say, my original plan to plug on northward is in jeopardy.  I may just have to chill here for 2 days. 

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