Monday, August 30, 2010

Halloween in Mobile-Land

Chris Ware, The New Yorker, November 2, 2009
Somehow I missed this New Yorker cover from last year: a literally perfect illustration of contemporary life, and least the life of middle class privilege in the United States. As I contemplate the next Halloween for the Wood Family in our own comfortable bedroom community, I am compelled to consider the worlds seen and unseen in this image.

I was sitting in a Starbucks this morning in downtown San Jose where buildings tower but are increasingly empty of residents, where storefronts are filled with artwork because business has died off and isn't coming back anytime soon. At the table next to me, four bedraggled folks were strategizing on how to move a TV left on a sidewalk somewhere to a storage container. Someone would want to buy it, one argued reasonably enough.

Yet somewhere - a world where folks get subscriptions to smart magazines like The New Yorker, I guess - this image also makes sense: a place where parents drag their costumed offspring from McMansion to McMansion (those tacky signs of conspicuous consumption are beginning to weigh heavy in an age of imminent double-dip recession, but the kids don't know) - only to gaggle on their phones the entire time. Chris Ware's cover image offers a glimpse of that privileged enclave.

His critique is soft. But the illustration's muted, autumnal colors say something important. The middle class world of mobile community, of dispersed community, exists today. It's anyone's guess how long it can endure.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Lady and the Tiger

Everyone's having fun but the tiger
Here's my last video (so far) from the Asia trip: we shot this in a Chiang Mai tiger zoo that allows you to pet the animals. Big ones, small ones - it's all good. Even so, I fear that one day we'll read a bloody story of an encounter gone wrong at this place. Indeed, it's crazy to get inside the bars with a maneater (at least man-wounder) that can rip you to shreds just for looking at it wrong. But we were so far from home, so far beyond our senses of "normality," that it just seemed like a good idea. "Wanna pet a tiger?"

Sure! Why the heck not?

Difficulty seeing the video? Point your browser here:

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Nanjing Neon

Here's some homemade video of a remarkable stretch of road in Shanghai: East Nanjing - a place that Kevin Dolgin describes as, "exactly like Times Square would be if it were a four-mile long pedestrian street: bathed in colored neon, flooded with people selling all kinds of illicit things." I shot this video during our trip to Expo 2010.

Difficulty seeing the video? Point your browser to:

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Riding a Bangkok Tuk-Tuk

You guessed it! I'm still working on beginning-semester activities and drafting my Asia trip summary. It's gonna be a while before that project is ready to share. For now, here's another video from our adventures in China and Thailand. This piece features a well-known Bangkok tourist experience: riding a tuk-tuk. What's a tuk-tuk? There's one good way to find out!

Difficulty seeing the video? Point your browser to:

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

2010 Shanghai Expo

As I'm culling through my notes for a forthcoming a trip summary of our summer Asia adventures [see the video], I thought I'd share a link to my video about the Shanghai world's fair.

As many reviewers, including one guest poster to this blog, have concluded, the Shanghai expo is vast, crowded, hot - and potentially a real drag. But I found that a little preparation and research, along with some strategic time management, ensures that the world's fair can be a delightful experience.

Oh yes, regardless of your attitude, the fair is still vast, crowded, and hot. Fair planners expect a total attendance of 70 million people, whether the streets are melting in 100+ degree temperatures or drowning in monsoon rains. Or both.

Still, as the video attempts to show, visiting the Shanghai expo can be entirely worth the effort. You can meet people from around the world, witness weird exhibits that inspire chuckles and groans, and experience sights and sounds that pack profound impact. The whole phantasmagoria is really quite unforgettable.

In future, I plan to write an essay about the fair along with the broader trip summary, which should appear on Woodland Shoppers Paradise in a week or two. Check in here from time to time for updates! And if you're anywhere near Shanghai before November, add the world's fair to your itinerary.

Difficulty seeing the video? Point your browser to:

Monday, August 23, 2010

Asia Adventures

I'm slowly resurfacing after a summer of travels and recent efforts to prepare my new course, Communication and Culture. In the meantime, I'm thrilled to share some of our adventures in China and Thailand.

This week I'll be rolling out some videos I produced of that trip. I'm also working on a more detailed trip summary, including lots of pix, which will appear on this site in the next couple weeks [update: world's fair section went online September 13th; the China portion was completed on October 7th].

Any difficulty seeing this video? Point your browser to the following YouTube site (and set for HD quality):

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Phuket: Day 15

Never too far...
Our last morning in paradise. This time Chaiya and her puppy were much more bold, waking us up before sunrise, even scratching at the mosquito netting. As I set in the hammock hanging on the deck outside our tent, I loved the soft warm feeling of a happy dog resting against me, content to be pet. Soon enough the dogs took off to play, romping down the hillside. Chaiya was always intent on training her pup with the help of some roughhousing and an occasional disciplinary nip. Later we hiked into the jungle for a while, Chaiya allowing the puppy to take her first excursion beyond the resort.

Our home away from everything for three days
It had rained overnight, and we got another brief downpour in the morning. The heat dissipated so quickly that we had to turn off the fan. Watching the water drops fall from palm fronds, the weather was absolutely and delightfully cool. The clouds parted and we settled into our routine, starting with another homemade breakfast -- Jenny devouring banana pancakes; I stuck with my favorite option of watermelon and pineapple, along with some tea and lemon grass water. We made arrangements for a longtail to pick us up in the early evening, and the owner assured us we could spend the day at the resort without the hassle of clearing our room.

View through the mosquito netting
He was amazed at our patience for the travel that lay before us: a flight from Phuket to Bangkok, a longer flight to Seoul South Korea, a long layover and then the final marathon flight to San Francisco (and accompanying one and a half hour drive home). Thinking about the journey ahead, and all the attendant hassles of carrying bags that bulged with new clothes and souvenirs, dealing with customs, immigration, and security details, and the long periods of jostling boredom in cramped airplane seats, I had to shake my head. Getting home from here would indeed be monumental undertaking. So I just pushed all that stuff out of my mind, happy instead to hang from a hammock overlooking a bay under billowing clouds.

Chaiya says goodbye
For some reason it took me almost months to complete this story. Usually I need just a few days, but a crush of work duties and other obligations got in the way. For a while I wondered if I'd ever share these notes. Yet Jenny and I regularly recall our happy times in China and Thailand. Places that were once abstract have become real to us, and now we often draw from those memories to liven up a story or make a point. You know, "It was like that first day at the world's fair," or "Hey, you rode a Bangkok tuk-tuk, you can handle anything!" I guess that's one gift of travel: it's a life-thickener, and I'm so glad we added China and Thailand to our lives. Already I envision many return visits.

There's so much more to see!

Day 14 | Start Over

Monday, August 16, 2010

Phuket: Day 14

Chaiya was our near-constant companion at Koh Naka Yai
Morning light broke over the distant hilly mountains right about six, and Jenny and I were thrilled to see the sunrise from our bed. Right then we were greeted by two visitors, Chaiya and her puppy, who waited outside the mosquito netting. They were positive that we'd prefer to be woken early to have time to pet them, and they were right. Our morning duties satisfied, we drifted back to sleep, waking a few hours later for a breakfast of fresh fruit and other tasty bites. It's a strange thing, being the only guests at a resort where everyone seems focused on your pleasures and comforts.

Close enough...
Lunch was another specially prepared meal, and it was genuinely good. But I had to admit to craving a candy bar. Normally I'd run out to a 7-11 -- they're almost everywhere in Thailand. Here, I'd be forced to hire a longboat back to Phuket. Luckily, some staffers were already in town across the bay picking up some supplies, and the resort owner was happy to call and ask them to hook me up. I felt giddy at the silliness of the whole thing. But what's a "luxury resort" without a little luxury?

Island wildlife
The afternoon was dedicated to lounging under the shade by the beach, though Jenny was a little more active; she took pictures of butterflies that flitted about. We also saw an impressively sized lizard, maybe a two-footer, scrounging for a meal while keeping a wary eye out for us. Otherwise we just relaxed. We'd sit for a while next to the beach; then we'd walk somewhere else, only to sit some more. There was nothing much else to do but look at the water, play with the dog, listen to music, and nap. Jenny recalls that this was the best nothing we've ever done.

This was supposed to be monsoon season...
The clouds were light and wispy, and I felt sorry for all the folks who would love to be here but chose not to risk the stories of constantly pouring rain. We'd not seen a drop. Jenny shook her head at the absurdity of my repeated wish: "It's got to rain sometime, doesn't it?" It was such a lovely day. Evening returned us to dinner in the open-air restaurant where wireless computer access is available during the few hours that the resort's generator cranks up electrical power.

View from our outdoor shower
Washing off mosquito repellant in our outdoor shower, we settled for another night of a battery-powered fan and the singing of natural nightlife. I dreamed of strange and vaguely scary things but knew I was somewhere as safe and comfortable as I'd ever seen in my life.

Island sunset
Day 13 | Day 15

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Chiang Mai to Phuket: Day 13

Much of the day was dedicated to travel, departing Chiang Mai and heading south to an island near Phuket called Koh Naka Yai, where we'd enjoy the last three days of our Asian adventure. Getting there, unfortunately, required passing through a now-common gauntlet of security screenings (two in one especially annoying ten-minute period) before waiting at a gate filled with a gaggle of tourists, a TV showing a Thai teen-sitcom, and an ensemble of musicians playing traditional music (as far as we could tell). The flight was blissfully forgettable.

Crossing Phang Nga Bay by longtail
A guide picked us up and loaded us into a van and charted our course toward the dock. We'd come to Phuket just to leave it. Once more I felt that unsettling tourist dilemma, recognizing a complex array of people, equipment, exchanges, and services necessary just for two people to sit quietly on a peaceful island. This disquieting feeling arose most strongly when the guide had to haggle with a reluctant longtail captain, a guy clearly miffed at the prospect of crossing Phang Nga Bay with measly complement of two people. Eventually we set off for the tiny island of Koh Naka Yai, home of a "luxury tent resort" called Tenta Nakara.

No electricity - but they do have cold beer!
Crossing the bay, watching the boat slice through blue foamy currents, I wondered just what we'd find. Supposedly we were arriving right in the middle of rainy season. Yet the skies were filled only with white puffy clouds. Would the weather hold? After about 20 minutes we pulled ashore, docking near a sign that hung between two palm trees. "Cold Beer," it promised. Several employees greeted us in a manner that reminded me of that cheesy 70s show, Fantasy Island. Checking in meant signing a guest book while sipping a glass of lemon grass juice. The resort's owner, Chulpol Burusratanaphan, informed us that we were his only guests.

Paradise on a hillside
I understand that folks would want to avoid monsoon season, but goodness is this place beautiful. And we had it all to ourselves. Climbing onto a hillside overlooking the bay, Tenta Nakara is awash with butterflies, golden orange birds of paradise, and about 15 thatched-roof huts. Aside from a four-hour spell when electricity is available in the restaurant, the resort runs by natural power alone. At first, I must admit to feeling a bit constrained by its tiny scale. I looked at a tiny sliver of beach, those smallish huts, and asked myself, "Is this it?" Maybe sensing my mood, the owner reminded us of a footpath that led to nearby secluded beaches and, further inland, a small village.

Touring with the happiest dog in the world
Ahh, I thought: adventure! We tossed our gear into the tent (careful to secure the mosquito netting) and set off. And we had company: a friendly and alert mutt named Chaiya who, we'd soon learn, loves nothing more in the world than to accompany guests on island hikes. Heading away from the beach and upward, Jenny and I surveyed lines of rubber trees while looking out for spider webs that sometimes were strung across the trail. Sometimes we'd lose site of Chaiya - Is she OK? Should we go find her? - until we'd see her a hundred yards further ahead, head cocked backward with canine zen wisdom: "You coming?"

Literally, these guys would hang across the trail
The village was nothing like we imagined. No one was trying to sell us trinkets. No one cared, actually, that we'd come. Kids were just getting out of school. They knew Chaiya, though most were a bit frightened of her; she romps with such delight, she could knock a child over. Otherwise the village was quiet. We didn't hear any radio or television. Signs announced that the people get their power from solar energy. Jenny stopped awhile to play with some kittens; Chaiya concentrated chickens and a couple of goats (who also knew, but didn't much like, the dog). Later we relaxed at a solitary beach. In the distance, daytrippers were packing up their stuff, returning to boats that waited off-shore.

Rows of rubber trees
Back at Tenta Nakara, Chaiya departed. Her guest-work done, she scampered off to her next order of business. Jenny and I sat in an open-air diner atop beams sunk into the soil, looking at the waves. The clouds turned pink and purple, and we picked out menu items. As if on cue, the frogs and crickets cranked up a night chorus. The resort owner joined us, praising our good luck at getting a tent set so high up the hill. The noise can get nearly deafening at night, he said. After dinner we carried a lantern up those hilly steps and retreated behind our tent's mosquito netting. Helped by one too many glasses of Thai whiskey, I settled into a blissful sleep, with only a fan needed to mellow the tropical heat.
Day 12 | Day 14

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Chiang Mai: Day 12

Gray skies greeted us this morning, and I wondered whether we'd have a miserable time in the jungle. Our guide arrived and confirmed, yeah, we might have some problems, but we should head out of town anyway and hope for the best. So we drove north toward the Burmese border, past tin-roofed stores and spirit houses, into a green hilly land that made Chiang Mai appear positively metropolitan. We heard stories of checkpoints and saw reminders that the military keeps a keen eye open for refugees and other undocumented peoples. But our guide smiled and reminded us, nobody messes with tourists these days.

Jenny enters a village, bearing gifts and western guilt
Our first stop was a village occupied by the Karen people, actually a tribe called the Padaung known for its "Long Necked Ladies." For months Jenny and I wrestled with this part of the trip. We'd seen pictures of the women who wear heavy brass rings from an early age. Most women of the Padaung add these rings year after year, pushing their collarbones down until their necks appear to be severely elongated: a sign of grace and beauty among these folks, we're told. Jenny and I considered ditching this part of the package, preferring not to participate in a tourist activity that seems so nakedly exploitative. Yet after reading about these women, refugees from Burma who subsist on the visits of camera-toting westerners, Jenny decided that we should go, as long as we bring gifts.

"It's called a scrunchie. You wear it!"
It's an awkward feeling, being led around a muddy village that was built primarily for photography, a stage-set composed mostly of commercial opportunities: stalls where women and girls offer supposedly handmade tourist trinkets for sale (the very things you can find at Bangkok airport gifts shops). The prices are both insanely inflated and ridiculously low. We bought a few things while Jenny offered her homemade presents, crocheted "scrunchies," one at a time. The adults weren't sure what do with the frilly presents they received, but the kids had no such problems. They turned the scrunchies into toys and commenced to running around, playing the kinds of games that children play worldwide. We stayed awhile and then we left, driving past a forlornly chained water buffalo. I was glad the whole thing was over.

Crossing over to see the elephants
Our next destination was an elephant preserve, the purpose of the entire trip as far as Jenny was concerned. For me this summer was all about traveling to China: a chance to explore the Shanghai world's fair; I'd been dreaming of it for years. Thereafter we considered several other destinations, Vietnam being my first choice. But Jenny wanted to see elephants. Honestly I wasn't too thrilled with the idea; I just couldn't visualize having a good time in Thailand. I was wrong, of course. And as we crossed a brown, rolling river over a long wooden footbridge, I knew Jenny'd led us to the right place.

"Need more sugar cane, lady? Turn around. They've got some in that stall."
The visit began with a somewhat perfunctory "elephant show." We watched the animals bathe in the river, we fed them hunks of sugar cane (conveniently available at a nearby stall), and we viewed how elephants are trained for jungle work, rolling logs with their trunks and helping stack heavy pieces of wood. One elephant painted a picture, really, with just a little guidance from a handler (known as a mahout in these parts). I say the whole thing was "perfunctory" because the show clearly runs through the same scripted performance day in and day out; you could tell from the sleepy expressions worn by all concerned. "Oh God," I imagined one mahout thinking, "If I see another elephant 'paint' a tree, I'm going to run screaming into the bush and never come back."

"So this is a 'camera.' Is it edible? Are you sure? Can I check anyway?"
All the same, we'd come to ride elephants, rain or shine. About then I realized, you know, we're in a rain forest. Something tells me that we'd ride no matter what. Better yet, the drizzle stopped and the sun began to peak through the clouds. It was time to ride some elephants! (Really, all the while throughout the show I kept wondering, "Are we going to ride the elephants? When will we ride the elephants? Will we ride the elephants now?) At last, we joined a short queue, hoisted ourselves atop a bamboo seat for two, and commenced to a short ride into the jungle.

View from the top - of the bottom
For about an hour and a half we followed a rocky rivulet, stepping over small waterfalls and ducking under hanging vines. Mahouts, sitting on the elephants' necks, would sometimes race us past one of their pals, but otherwise we followed a slow lumbering course. Our elephant would stop to enjoy a leafy snack now and again; otherwise he knew the drill. We stopped briefly at another "village," presumably to allow the animals some rest, but mainly to be sold more "handicrafts." Then it was back to the camp for a lunch of Northern Thai delicacies calibrated (a bit over calibrated, actually) for Western tastes. Jenny loved every moment. As we departed we were sold a picture they'd printed of Jenny and I on an elephant while we were riding through the jungle. The frame, we're told, is made of elephant dung.

An amazingly complex intersection of transportation,
culture, and tourism: all for this single photograph
(and thousands just like it)
After the elephant ride our guide drove us to the nearby Chiang Dao caves, which had always been a somewhat empty part of our itinerary. The package included a cave visit, so we would see caves, we figured. Turns out that Chiang Dao is a remarkable collection of towering caverns, dripping stalagmites, and religious artifacts that represent a convergence of Thai and Burmese cultures. Our guide revealed the varying manifestations of Buddha found throughout the pitch black enclosure, also interpreting dozens of formations that were helpfully illuminated by a local docent who lit our meandering path with a torch. When we had to turn back from one cavern that was filling with rainwater we knew that our bamboo raft trip would be canceled. We were a bit bummed as we left the cave, but our guide offered a swell replacement: we'd visit a tiger petting zoo instead.

That's right, we drove to a place called Tiger Kingdom for a chance to sit inside enclosures of tigers that range from playful kittens to imposing man-eaters. We were promised that these animals have been raised with human contact and only eat cooked meat - never the fresh stuff. Still, when one especially frisky cat swung his head around to look me in the eye, a handler deftly separated us quickly. These cats are for real.

I'm pretty sure we got the "It's raining and
tourists will now pay anything" price.
We paid for a 15 minute encounter but got about a half hour to visit a couple tigers, petting them and taking picture after goofy tourist picture. Once more, Jenny was enthralled; seeing some of Thailand's animals up close was her favorite day of the trip.

"Great. More non-edible food."
A little before dusk we drove back to Chiang Mai. We thanked our guide for a delightful day before grabbing an embarrassingly western meal in town. We were dusty, wet, and tired. The day'd been a total success. Now we would relax and prepare for the final leg of the journey. Last stop: Phuket.

Tourists. Bad for this tiger's diet.

Day 11 | Day 13

Friday, August 13, 2010

Chiang Mai: Day 11

We made up for yesterday's relaxed morning pace by snapping out of bed at an ungodly hour in order to catch a ride to the airport - just in time to arrive two hours earlier than necessary. That's my preference, of course. Nonetheless we felt a little silly hanging around the gate while the minutes oozed by. Adding a bit of texture to the time was the thrum of rain pounding against the concourse windows. This was the first serious precipitation we'd seen the entire trip, and given how many times we'd been warned to prepare for monsoons, I was feeling lucky. At the same time I fought to suppress a rising feeling of dread that our trip into the jungle near Chiang Mai might be marred by lousy weather.

Old Town stupa
So we caught our plane, heading north toward the Burmese border. I thought about the Indochina conflicts of the 70s - and how regional struggles continue to bloody this part of the world. Yes, Jenny and I would remain firmly entrenched in the sphere of travel agent assurances and credit card promises, even in a potentially dangerous place. Still, we couldn't ignore that gloriously sticky heat we felt upon deplaning. There's no faking a place like this. Chiang Mai is at least one or two steps closer to the real world than the airport we cheerfully departed. The dripping palm fronds reminded us of our trip to Key West, the kind of environment where the sweat never stops rolling, and you just don't care.

Crumbling defensive wall on the edge of Old Town
The heart of Chiang Mai is its Old Town, a square surrounded by a moat and a crumbling defensive wall. Tormented clouds gathered overhead, but we had to get out there for a few hours at least. Our plan was to amble about; tomorrow would begin the real adventure: riding elephants, meeting villagers, and taking a bamboo raft downriver. We had low expectations for the afternoon, which is a good thing. Once we made our way to the wall, the rain returned. First sprinkles, then a deluge. Jenny and I ran down a street on the edge of Old Town until we had to duck under the eave of a cafe. The place was closed, but we could see folks cleaning up. I felt guilty sitting there. I'd have preferred to buy something. One of the workers smiled and offered wordless assurance, though; we could stay as long as necessary. Dipping our heads away from the overhang we laughed to see daredevil mopeders using one hand to hoist an umbrella aloft while using the other hand to steer.

Chiang Mai dragon
The rain wasn't going to let up, not for a while anyway, which meant that we had to flag down a taxi-bus back to the hotel. Around here, these vehicles - covered pickup trucks - take on passengers wherever they're hailed and drop them off in the order deemed most convenient by the driver. It's not the most efficient form of personal transportation, but it makes sense on a larger scale. We found an additional benefit on this particular day: the chance to sit with other locals and enjoy a weatherproof tour of town.

Chiang Mai Street, Rainy Day
Returning to our hotel we relaxed until the rain finally died off. Technically it was a light drizzle when we set off, a couple hours before dusk. Hitting the streets once more we hiked along broken sidewalks and narrow alleys in search of the oldest temple in Chiang Mai: Wat Chiang Man. Jenny mapped a path using major roads, but I insisted we find a "back way." Thankfully, Jenny was up for the adventure.

Elephant and Buddha at Wat Chiang Man

At Wat Chiang Man monks were worshiping inside the main hall so we occupied ourselves by wandering about the smaller buildings; we'd learned already that monks in prayer ought not be hassled by tourists. The grass was covered with rain water and the spectre of mosquitos kept us vigilant about spray-on repellent. Later on we meandered by stalls offering freshly killed meat and poultry, stopping to pet a dog whose cocksure attitude left no doubt: he owned the street (perhaps that's why the backpacker's hotel nearby is called The Funky Dog).

Jenny meets the Funky Dog
Dinner was at a riverside restaurant where I had my first non-Westernized version of Tom Yum Goong, the regionally ubiquitous chile pepper-spiced soup that features prawns, lime juice, lemon grass, fish sauce, and other delectables. This stuff sizzled my tongue, mostly because I forgot to ask, "Pet nit noi" (some variation of "a little spicy but not too hot"). Later we ventured in the Night Market and haggled for trinkets. Jenny got suckered into buying a wooden frog that "croaks" when you rub a stick over its serrated wooden surface. I took a minor plunge on a miniature tuk-tuk made out of a beer can. Returning to our hotel I wondered about tomorrow and the rains that could wreck the day. Mostly though, I felt wonderful just to be here.

Dreaming of elephants in the jungle

Day 10 | Day 12

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Bangkok: Day 10

Grand prang of Wat Arun
Throughout our stay, Wat Arun had been our nightlight. Resting across the Chao Phraya River, the "Temple of the Dawn" glows with natural and artificial illumination, always tantalizingly close. The wat's towering central prang had beckoned us to climb those steps. This morning we would answer the call - eventually. After so much travel, Jenny and I were starting to drag. So we relaxed a while, enjoying a mellow breakfast (for some reason I found that tuna sandwiches and apple juice made the best combination at this place) and gathering our energy for another hot day in Bangkok. Then it was off to the dock to await the ferry that'd take us across the river.

We learned that the surfaces of many wats around here are covered with broken porcelain that previously had served as ballast for Chinese ships. Up close the details of this eighteenth century site of Buddhist learning and spirituality are almost overwhelmingly intricate. Three-headed elephants, demons, bird-women, and other mythical figures are guarded by Chinese soldiers. Everywhere, worlds beyond our own: the four stages of Buddha's life, the seven realms of happiness, the cosmological center of the world… so much symbolism, it would take a lifetime to understand it all. Many lifetimes, I guess. I settled for a climb up that 266 foot-tall prang, a chance to gaze upon Bangkok in peaceful exhaustion.

Andy makes a friend in Bangkok
Jenny and I also found time to pet the local cats. Like all temple kitties, the cats of Wat Arun had mastered the art of finding cool places on a hot day. As usual, we were gently accosted by various artisans and stall vendors hawking their wares: reclining Buddhas, elephant carvings, t-shirts, and the like. I kept a regular search out for cold soda (ignoring Jenny's reminders about the diuretic nature of caffeine) and looked back fondly to our times in China when we carried fans everywhere. Returning across the river we briefly strolled the grounds of the Royal Palace but opted not to take pricy tours. Instead we dropped onto our bed at Arun residence, soaked in sweat.

108 bronze bowls of Wat Pho
Later we made our way back to Wat Pho, this time to participate in the ritual of the 108 bowls (representing - because everything represents something in these places - the 108 auspicious characteristics of the Buddha). Jenny worried that the prayer and idolatry of this place might not mix properly with her own faith but I, less certain of these things, felt more confident in my choice to drop a coin into 108 bronze bowls. With each clink I would silently utter the same wordless hope, digging the droning repetition, the trancelike state of the trudge. Click, clink, clink. At the end I had a few extra coins. I dropped most into a container but kept one; it rattles around in my wallet even today. It's a small thing, easily lost. I really should hide it somewhere safe. But the ephemerality of this thing, the perpetual anxiety of its rustling and near imminent loss, seems right to me.

Graceful gestures of Thai dance
Departing the Temple of the Reclining Buddha we saw a group of young women mount a stage nearby to perform traditional Thai dance in celebration of the Queen's Birthday (also Mother's Day, interestingly enough). Their full-length costumes that glittered with gold, their graceful hand motions conveying fathomless meaning, arrested us. Thereafter we entered another enclosure, enjoying the floor's relative coolness under our sticky legs, quieting ourselves to contemplate another of Wat Pho's Buddhas.

Wat Pho detail
We watched as folks searched out their fortunes in a ritual traditionally known as kau cim. With this practice, you shake a bamboo container cylinder filled with about 100 numbered sticks until one pops out. That stick corresponds to a scrolled message that is presented by an interpreter. While neither Jenny nor I were entirely sure how to apply our fortunes, we at least learned anew the value of a smile in Thai culture.

Wandering the streets of Bangkok
In early afternoon we hailed a tuk-tuk for Bangkok's Banglamphu neighborhood, joining a ridiculously large compliment of westerners. Each cafe was occupied by Americans, Europeans, and Australians, all chatting about parties, organizing excursions, watching TV, and nursing beers. This place, especially Khao San Road, still earns its reputation as a backpackers' paradise (or ghetto). Susan Orlean's New Yorker essay The Place to Disappear paints an affectingly dated but nonetheless vivid summary:
It was as if the strangeness of where they were and what they were doing were absolutely ordinary . . . as if it were quite unexceptional to be three Scottish girls drinking Australian beer in Thailand on their way to Laos, and as if the world were the size of a peanut-something as compact as that, something that easy to pick up, shell, consume, as long as you were young and sturdy and brave.
Truthfully Jenny would have preferred that we return to the Pratunam Market; the shopping there was better. Oh well. We walked. We looked at shirts. We stopped for ice cream. We walked some more. Then we hitched a ride on yet another tuk-tuk and headed back to our hotel.

Tuk-tuk view of a world where Sylvester Stallone's Cobra is still cool
Nightfall brought fireworks for the Queen's birthday. We were both so exhausted that we considered staying in. But Jenny had been rousing up her courage to try some street food and she talked me into one final excursion. We hiked for blocks through nearly deserted streets; I'd never seen Bangkok so empty. Everyone, it seemed, had gravitated to the palace. Our goal was Chinatown where I imagined that we'd find acres of neon signs. We found a few, but mostly we searched for an ideal concentration of spicy, fresh food.

Chinatown, Bangkok
After walking up and down the main drag we finally found our destination - a curbside grill that cast burning sparks into the night. Pointing at our selections, we sad illiterates, Jenny and I scrounged up a meal: some sort of rice and shrimp deal that came with a bonus option of attached eyestalks. Elsewhere we ordered up a plate of Pad Thai (accompanied by a beer I found at a nearby 7-11).

Bangkok neon
A riot of tastes and smells convinced us that we'd made the right call. Ever the animal-lover, Jenny saved enough of her portion to feed a cat she heard meowing down the street. And then it was time to grab one last tuk-tuk ride to Arun Residence. Tomorrow we will head north for the jungle. Our next designation: Chiang Mai.

Day 9 | Day 11

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Bangkok: Day 9

Wat Traimit
We enjoyed a busy day in Bangkok, starting with a guided tour. As usual, this is the part of the story where I emphasize how we don't usually go in for those things. But for some reason the idea of traipsing around Bangkok seemed like a different sort of adventure than the ones we'd had in other overseas locations. Maybe it's that danged Murray Head song, One Night in Bangkok, but for some reason I've always associated Thailand's capital city with danger. That said, there's the additional reality that the city (and a fair amount of the country) had been convulsed with violence during the Red Shirt Rebellion earlier this year. Either way, we thought it'd be wise to begin our trip with a savvy local for the first few hours.

Golden Buddha at Wat Traimit
We started at Wat Traimit, the temple of the Golden Buddha. There we learned the story of how this icon had once been covered in cheap-looking stucco - a forgettable relic - until construction workers accidentally shattered the exterior after dropping the thing into the mud - revealing a solid gold Buddha. Apparently it had been camouflaged to ward off the threat of Burmese pillagers, a secret held by Buddhist monks who willingly faced death rather than reveal the truth. Staring at its serenely gaudy features we began to chat with our guide about his own thoughts about visiting this place. Turns out, he had a lot to say, especially after being a Buddhist monk three times in his life. He told us that most Thai men serve brief periods as monks, wearing those saffron robes and practicing daily rituals of exceeding discipline. To be a monk, our guide explained, is to experience a time of learning, contemplation, and humility (though, interestingly enough, even the Thai king and queen must Wai to the monks).

Ronald McDonald in Thailand
Ah, the Thai Wai… So much has been written about this lovely tradition, and I am hardly able to offer more useful insight than what you can read elsewhere. Certainly I can tell you that the Wai serves many roles: as a greeting, an apology, an act of thanks, or more generally as a sign of respect. Mostly the Wai signifies one's relationship to another person. And that's where things get complicated, if only because the relational permutations in Thailand are vastly more complex than in the U.S. Still, many Americans see a Thai person clasping his hands together and then bringing them upward toward his face, and they figure, "Well, when in Bangkok!" Yeah, as much as you might want to Wai, it's not such a good idea (that is, if you're not Thai). The Wai has so many subtle variations and meanings, so many opportunities to screw it up, I think it's best to avoid the whole thing. Here's what I learned: When receiving a Wai, it's appropriate for a non-Thai to smile and nod. But unless you're interacting with a monk (which is unlikely) or a member of the royal family (which is even more unlikely) the Wai is more trouble than it's worth. A genuine smile in Thailand is almost always the right way to go.

Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho
Following our first temple visit we sat off for Wat Pho, temple of the Reclining Buddha. This aptly named relic stretches 150 feet from head to toe, and his soles are covered with creamy Mother of Pearl. I loved this place, especially the sound of coins clinking in containers used by pilgrims filling 108 bowls, one coin each, for prayer and luck [Incidentally this temple also features signs warning tourists to beware "Non-Thai pickpocket gangs"]. As with Wat Traimit, we were required to remove our shoes and enter with a reverential attitude and appropriate attire.

Contemplating enlightenment at Wat Pho
Thus you can imagine my shame when, while viewing another Buddha at Wat Pho (they've got over 1000 images there), I accidentally pointed my feet toward the icon. Bad, bad, bad. Pointing one's feet toward another person is, pretty much in all contexts, a rude gesture in Thailand. Pointing one's feet toward the Buddha… Yikes, that's even worse. A fellow watching over the room tapped me on the shoulder and gave me a stern look. Realizing my error I immediately apologized and later found him to apologize again. He smiled kindly that second time, and I knew all was forgiven. Clueless tourists generally get a break around here.
Jenny and our guide discuss Wat Pho's fascinating history
The only problem with the whole guided tour concept was the price. No, we didn't have to pay extra so much as we had to endure a required stop at a jewelry store. What a racket. The place was fortressed behind gated fortifications and guarded, I'm serious, by dudes carrying machine guns. Inside we were led from room to room - watching jewelers at work and being shown case after case of baubles. In the middle of it all? A shark tank. The whole experience was so surreal, much like attending one of those timeshare deals where you're promised a free dinner at a fancy restaurant as long as you endure a high pressure pitch. Fortunately the store folks didn't push too hard, and we got through the gauntlet of smiling salespeople within about a half hour without buying so much as a postcard. After that we were crowded into another bus, presumably filled with similar miscreants not polite enough to buy a diamond, and deposited near where we wanted to go.

Bangkok's tangled urbanity
As we found yesterday, Bangkok's roads are a tightly wound spaghetti of people, cars, and buses. Many of the major streets were also festooned with blue flags to commemorate the Thai queen's birthday. While we commenced to bumping along rutted streets our guide spoke in a manner both cheerful and ominous about some imminent conflict with Cambodia over a tiny piece of borderland. Sometimes we'd pass by canals, once the city's primary means of transportation, and understand why Bangkok is called "The Venice of the East." And often we'd ride by temples where women string yellow flowers into garlands. We talked about the changing weather, how rising carbon dioxide levels have poisoned the rain and forced kids to stay inside during downpours, and we imagined ourselves riding a tuk-tuk, those three-wheeled taxis that look like oversized go-karts. Once we got to Pratunam Market we said our thanks and headed off on our own.

Shopping in Pratunam Market (where, apparently, "porn tips" are on sale)
The market area is a combination of low-end shopping, street food vendors, and piecework factory. Passing stalls that seemed to sell versions of the same stuff (lots of elephant imagery, cargo pants with dozens of pockets, and the like) we'd sometimes pass by a line of sewing machines where women make clothes or enter steamy zone where other women press them. Underfoot, children would be sleeping or playing or sharing a meal. Jenny and I ran quick currency-conversion math before realizing that the price for goods being sold here just doesn't compute. We bought clothes that I wear to this day that cost less than a burger at a fast food joint. It's a strange and guilty feeling.

Bangkok street performer
Eventually we had our fill of the indoor/outdoor cavern of stalls where just-this-side-of-desperate touts repeatedly sought our gaze and began to walk back toward Arun Residence. We had no idea of precisely how to get anywhere, but I figured we could find our way. Jenny had a decent map and we enjoyed high spirits. A mile or so away, though, we changed our minds. It was time to ride a tuk-tuk. Of course there's a video.

After freshening up at our hotel we decided to take a longtail water taxi upriver in search of a dinner cruise that we'd heard was pretty good. So we got dressed in our nicest clothes - me in a snazzy new shirt and Jenny in a fancy dress - only to look kind of stupid standing on the wrong dock. There we were, western would-be fashionistas waiting on some bewildered woman's private jetty for a longtail that would never stop. Before too long we found our way to the right place - heading in the wrong direction.

Riding further and further down river, we considered bagging the whole idea. But once we disembarked, we found a perfectly nice dinner cruise option just a block away. The meal was delightful, the band was fun, and the night was wonderful as we watched the city roll by. Returning to shore we hailed a standard taxi (well, actually, the "Number 1 Taxi in Thailand" according to the driver's business card) and turned in just as sprinkles of rain began to fall.

Jenny and Andy on Bangkok river cruise

Day 8 | Day 10