Today We Explore Bangkok

We woke up lazily but not so late that we’d miss breakfast. The mattress was firm and there were lots of sheets to curl up in or discard. The city view from our window wasn’t so flattering to the urban landscape, not as much as it had been the night before.

The first thing we did, after getting cleaned up and dressed, was set up our laptops to download the latest podcasts in our libraries via Imm Fusion Wi-Fi (the front desk issues guests a daily scrap of paper containing a six-character hexadecimal user ID and a five-digit password; it’s only good for 24 hours). Following this, we marched downstairs—you can spiral down the stairs or wait for a vintage elevator—and got our continental breakfast.

Dragonfruit

Fresh dragonfruit looks otherworldly, to a foreigner.

I’d like to emphasize we’re on a different continent, so the breakfast is no longer a roll, a croissant, a selection of melons and a 6 oz. glass of orange juice. This was a lavish breakfast bar: there was a selection of fruit, yes, but they were fruit that are never seen fresh in our home nation. Mangosteen, nangka (jackfruit), dragonfruit are all glowing with health and waiting for consumption. There’s thick yogurt and granola/muesli for the Scand tourists; a couple cereals for the kiddie-winkies; an assortment of pastries. I found it a refreshing change to have a selection of exotic fresh fruits for breakfast (I mean, a change from my U.S. life. Obviously this is what we’d been doing in Indonesia the whole time, and I know we won’t do it when we return to the States). Each breakfast came to 240 baht for two people, around $8 per person—not cheap! We could’ve saved a little money by having breakfast included with the room, but we thought we’d be going out each day.

On my laptop, I executed a little experiment in which I listed the things we wanted to do today and looked them up in Google Maps, as well as searching for what was interesting around us. I plotted the entire day’s itinerary by booting around on Google Maps! I have to assert at this point, I know Google is spreading its influence and may someday become threatening, but it’s really doing a bang-up job on the services it offers. I love the integration between Google Maps and Google Buzz—as soon as I write up a location in my [former] picture-a-day blog and tag it with a location, users on Google Buzz start responding to me! They let me know how happy they are I’m praising their town, what’s fun to do in their area… man, there is something to be said for service integration, as ominous as that sounds to other people.

BTS Sky Train

Racing across the city in the SkyTrain.

All the stations along the BTS SkyTrain have their own names: ours is “On Nut,” which is not English and does not mean the same thing in English. What I really like about the SkyTrain is that the maps are very clear, even if you have to transfer somewhere, and the distance you go on each route determines your fare. It’s all very explicit and easy to understand. We ran up to the depot in the air across from Tesco Lotus, trotted past the cardboard stand-ups of various actors or pop musicians in an ad for milk that you could pose in for photos, past the gallery of temporary stands vending kouffiyehs (now known as “London scarves”, hail the conquering tribe) or childish manga stationery I found very appealing, and we ran to buy our tickets. The kiosk is a large, cylindrical automated monument, and people crowd around it more or less in queues to get their tickets. It’s an international mix of people and therefore a beautiful sight to behold, everyone from businessmen to day-trippers, from the quick-witted and jaded to the perpetually bedazzled and befuddled. We were right in the middle of each group.

Sky Train seating sign

BTS SkyTrain tries to encourage consideration.

We plonked in our coins, received a color-coded pass appropriate to how much money was stored on it (with a map of the routes on back! So smart!), scanned them at the turnstiles and waited for the SkyTrain to arrive. Everyone is very respectful when boarding or disembarking: there are marked arrows on the ground to indicate boarders must step to the sides and allow passengers to get off first. There are also PSAs advertised on the SkyTrain itself, which is fully loaded with little TVs every few feet.

Rebecca had made it a goal to learn one Thai character every day. Their alphabet, as you can see, is nothing like our own, but I have this thing where I can actually recognize a couple characters in Chinese and Japanese, and I just know the Korean structure to its written language. I can always tell what language I’m looking at, even if I can’t read a lick of it. But Rebecca thought it would be a good idea—a kind of low-impact, accessible exercise—to learn a common letter a day and pick it out of any text we saw. I thought this was a fine idea, except the Thai alphabet is unlike any other alphabet I’ve ever seen. If you showed me the same letter twice, I don’t think I’d be able to recognize it. I can’t pick up on any patterns beyond mostly vertical lines and occasionally a scoop at the top or bottom. I simply practiced my usual hello, thank you and (very) delicious because the inflection was something tricky. English speakers can’t agree (surprise, surprise) on how to transliterate “thank you,” for example. Is it “korp kun krap” or “kob khun krab“? The truth lies somewhere in the middle, and it’s a very subtle inflection that can’t easily be rendered for Western consumption.

Christmas tree in Emporium Mall

Christmas on display at Emporium Mall.

First stop: Emporium Mall. Like everything else in Bangkok, it was overdecorated for the Christmas season. More than a couple times, it struck me as odd how absolutely gangbusters Bangkok seemed to be about a Christian, western holiday. I suppose someone saw it as a money-making opportunity, and that was all it took to get it over.

We stopped at Boots U.K. for some pharmaceuticals. Traveler’s woes, don’t you know. Rebecca was terribly impressed with how bright and clean the place was, and so she felt underdressed with an embarrassment that lasts to this day. From there wandered toward a jeans store, and I found a pair of Wranglers that scratched my two-month-long itch. By this I mean they were of a softer sky blue than I actually like, and they were about an inch or two shorter than I prefer, and their cut was a featureless pair of cylinders meant for a lean Thai body and not a curvy, well-fed Western man’s frame… but still, they mostly fit and they were jeans, and I felt like a human in them. I wore them out of the store and broke them in throughout the day. But don’t think I didn’t reflect upon how deeply this form of branding was coded right down into my bones: I felt off-balance and jerky until I could secure my own blue jeans to restore my sanity. That should be worrisome, that western consumerist branding can be so encoded into my sense of identity, but at the time I simply rolled with it.

Fresh fruit stand

Rebecca selects fresh fruit from a street vendor.

Considering we hadn’t been in the country for a full 24 hours, I still felt I was getting a good impression of the city. I came here with all my preconceived notion, from Murray Head’s one-hit-wonder to any graphic misinformation Hollywood has perpetuated, but of course I was prepared to abandon all that. Let’s be serious: you can’t know what a place is like until you’re there. You can get reliable reports, you can read up on others’ impressions, but any ten seasoned travelers on the Lonely Planet or Rough Guide websites will interpret novel stimuli just as you will, so you’ve got to get out and see things for yourself.

And what did I see? We saw another fruit cart, of the kind Rebecca was enamored. She bought more fresh fruit to snack on as we trekked throughout the metropolis. I spotted an Irish pub, among all the international restaurants, any of which could have been run by actual expats who wanted to represent their father- and motherlands as easily as they may have been founded by locals who just wanted a gimmick to bring in the tourists. The fact was that westernization is infectious and unstoppable, which isn’t what I was fantasizing about prior to this grand adventure.

The Dubliner in Bangkok

Wherever there are expats, there will be expat watering-holes.

I guess that shouldn’t get me down as much as it does. I mean, if another culture wants a slice of the pie, that’s one thing; but if another culture has been tricked into being coöpted because some Dutch capitalist megacorporation senses a potential market… I’m the first to admit I’m very naïve about finance and international business, and I have but a rudimentary grasp of world history. Still, even the few basic concepts I can dimly perceive from my insular perch impress me with a sense of injustice or something just not being right. It’s different than being in favor of internationalism: I just wish there were a way to have a global village while allowing countries to retain their culture. But the fact is that many nations look up to the western/U.S. style of life and youth in particular want to experience something new and be part of something they see as cool and hip. Such has always been the case. So if I walk around a city and the only things that feel different than the city in my own home is that the streets are wider, the people are browner and the produce is fresher.

Ruan Thapthim resto

Ruan Thapthim, authentic cuisine for tourists.

As time went on we strolled past Queen’s Park (as the sign said: Google Maps insists on labeling it Benjasiri Park, which I didn’t note), which was right next to the Iranian Embassy. I think I felt a moment of alarm, but in truth there aren’t many American tourists: even people who spoke with us supposed we were French or German. Either way, we wended our way into the winding streets off the main boulevard and found ourselves in front of a nice-looking restaurant, Ruan Thapthim (see street view). The sign mounted in front was written in English and Japanese in addition to Thai, and it featured an alternate spelling of the restaurant. I’ve wondered how that happens, where the miscommunication happens between the business owner and the printer, how a letter gets tweaked or omitted. This wasn’t a mystery I would solve today, despite several hypotheses forming.

Tom Kha Gai soup

Tom Kha Gai, spicy and rich.

Rebecca ordered and subsequently loved a bowl of tom kha gai, a chicken soup with coconut and lemongrass, and I had to try the stir-fried boar. Asian boar! Not like German at all, possibly! We had a great lunch, not the least reason for which was our gregarious waiter, a young man who was already fluent in English but eager to practice further. Business was in a slow spot so he had time to tell us all about his life’s story, as it happened: he told us why he was working, how ill his mother was, his undying responsibility to his family, and he only lightly touched upon his irresponsible and abusive father.

I got the sense he wasn’t looking to dwell overmuch on what a terrible person his father was, though apparently drugs and gambling were involved. In his narrative he really wanted to impress us with the gratitude he felt toward his family in general, as if he had been a little goofy and wayward as young men are, and now he was working to repay the debt he felt for their tolerance and care. I wondered what specific circumstance had occurred to inspire that kind of devotion, that kind of turnaround of one’s life path. There was no indication he had committed any particular grievous offense, but he definitely sounded remorseful for an era of his short life in which he was irresponsible (again, in just such a way that any American would quickly forgive themselves) and not only wanted to succeed as a person but to, yeah, give back to his family.

Chana shrine

The in-store shrine for daily worship.

We never found out. Instead, he was very intent on teaching us a Thai phrase he felt was crucial to our tourism. What was it? I would have loved to know—he didn’t know how to translate it into English. And we never learned how to say it in Thai, or I don’t have it transliterated in my notes, so… that’s the end of that. The waiter noted the time and went to pay tribute to a shrine right behind Rebecca, in the outdoor eating area. We were respectfully quiet as he brought out and presented his offerings (a quality restaurant has some wonderful things to offer any neighborhood spirits or godlings), lit his incense and said his prayers. I appreciated the devotion to such a colorful religion, envied the belief in it to the point where it was simply a fact of life. I was permitted to ask too many questions about the belief system in which I was brought up, and nobody around me had sufficient (or any) answers to my inquiry—or else I was surrounded by adults who couldn’t take a precocious child seriously—and so I left the Church. Other religions look intriguing or ridiculous to me, and I don’t know what keeps their adherents faithful.

As I said, we had walked down a side street off the main boulevard, and this restaurant was inside an inlet for businesses off of that side street. Honey House Guesthouse was at the end of this inlet (which sounded to me like… well, you know what it sounds like), next to a pub, an Italian restaurant, a Japanese restaurant and a couple more restaurants. I’m surprised anyone got any business, so fierce was the competition anywhere we went, but maybe property rent is surprisingly low, or maybe there are just enough tourists eager to seek out-of-the-way delights that they can all subsist in relative harmony. I have no idea how these things work.

Bars and restaurants

Bars, pizza, bars, a guesthouse, more bars, and a gun club.

Directly across the parking lot from us, however, was an office in which the curious could set up an appointment at a gun range. And not just any gun range: you could fire all variety of automatic weapons or even a bazooka if you wanted. A freakin’ bazooka. Obviously the range was not right here in the city—likely you were driven out to a remote location in the countryside where there were fewer residences to annoy with massive explosions and ripping through buckets of ammo. We did not avail ourselves of this service, I only bring it up because… seriously, a bazooka.

I have no idea what comes next. For the time between 6 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., I have no notes in either my Moleskine or little red notebook and no photos.

I bet we napped. This was a big day of a lot of walking and me breaking in my new jeans, after all. Certainly, we’d done more walking in this one day than any three or four days back in the States, going about our usual routines. This fact stayed with me wherever we went, that we were simply more physically active on vacation than was required to forge a living in my home nation. Does that seem right, at first blush, when I say it like that?

Sukhumvit Night Market

Sukhumvit Night Market comes to life.

Fully refreshed, we made out again for the night market kitty-corner from us, this time in earnest. The place was just a bazaar of activity, and I was overwhelmed and delighted even while knowing it wasn’t the largest or best known out there. It was simply an ordinary event in the local lifestyle. There was nothing like this in my historical precedent: I could not imagine what it was like to live in an area where nearby property was reserved for an open marketplace in a network of tents, but these people grew up with it. And it was just simple tents, and it was just strands of holiday lights, but because I was new to it, it was all intensely magical and desirable to me. I wanted to thrum and flow with it, feel it in the cells of my being, to be able to say not only I was there, I was part of it. (This did not happen, not to the extent I just described, but I did take it in.)

There were live bands performing, food was being cooked on improvised grills, local artists were selling their paintings or clothing they’d designed, just everything was going on. There was an open platz for drinking beer with friends—each table had a branded beer dispenser, a tall, plastic cylinder of beer, born from the idea that ordering a pitcher and having to heft it to each pint glass was way too much work. I’ve been out of the loop of the trendy drinking scene, I know, but I hadn’t seen anything like this, and it struck me as pretty handy, actually, though each dispenser was also heavily branded with pretty shite beer. Well, what did I expect?

Independent Thai artists

Independent artists selling their t-shirt designs.

I was delighted to see local artists promoting themselves, passing out recycled or repurposed business cards, willing to talk to anyone willing to check out their wares. I was of course disappointed that the t-shirts were all too small for me, every single one, but again: what did I expect? I don’t have the build of the average Thai male, and these struggling artists weren’t choosing garments with the tall, pudgy westerner in mind. I probably could have picked up a few and passed them around my smaller, slighter friends, but I had no idea whether they would find these things as enchanting as I did. That’s generally the rule. Yet however out of place I was with the garments and the language coming from the TVs and bands, the food was right up my alley and I let myself snack with barely restrained enthusiasm. We also have grilled things on sticks where I come from; hell, we have a yearly festival dedicated to this.

Tesco Lotus, Bangkok

Late-night snacking at Tesco Lotus.

Last stop of the night: the main grocery store in the back of Tesco Lotus, past all the frenetic and dazzling restaurant shacks and electronics kiosks. Rebecca and I rounded out the eventful day with a small shopping trip in the familiar setting of a grocery store. We took great relief in everything that resembled that which we knew, and anything that was alien we received with fascination or humor. There are some things we must do simply because they are familiar, especially when we’re exhausting ourselves in a foreign land. It’s more wearying than you can believe to be surrounded by a language you can’t read, to relearn the conventions of traffic and public transit, to never shut off the energy that goes into being a polite representative of your nation or simply being appreciated as an inoffensive outlander in general.

So, without being offensive or antagonistic, we indulged in maybe 20 minutes of intellectual quiet time. We giggled over the distinction between “Snack” and “Sea Snack,” marking the aisles. We marveled over all the flavors Frito-Lay has here but will never present to the U.S., that so-called land of plenty, that self-styled haven of diversity. And most importantly, we purchased a few bars of chocolate for future snacking and two Magnum bars for a nightcap. We’d done this all throughout the Indonesian islands and saw no reason to cease this here, now.

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