From Vientiane to Bangkok on a night train in a 2nd class car… Berths are not compartments as we know then in North America but arranged in an ‘open plan’ on each side of a central aisle. During the earlier evening and later morning portions of the journey, pairs of seats face each other on each side of the aisle where you face your berth mate. At night, each pair of seats pull together to form the bottom bunk and an upper bunk folds out from the wall. An attendant makes up your bed with a proper mattress and fresh, crisp, clean bedding, and hooks curtains which are provided for each bunk to give you privacy. All bedding is stored on the upper bunk and comes down and turned into a bed for the person sleeping on top. Essentially, it is one whole train car that sleeps in the open, together, (save these “privacy curtains”). It was very comfortable and 12 hours later I arrived in Bangkok. I loved the train ride and the egalitarianism of the berths.
Bangkok was the largest city I’d been in, in a while. The traffic was seemingly non-stop. The “sky train” (MRT subway) is efficient and takes you everywhere you need to go. The Sunday I arrived I went to the Chatuchak weekend market. Stall after stall is filled with clothing, jewellery, trinkets, shoes, belts, or just about anything else you could want. There are food stalls by the dozen and I drank my first of several Thai iced teas at this market. I also ate the best coconut ice cream ever — in a coconut shell with shaved coconut on the bottom. No complaints!!!
My friend Michelle arrived in Bangkok from the U.S. the same day as I arrived from Vientiane — for a two-day business trip. We went out for supper the two nights she was there – for some of the best food I ate on this trip. It was soooooooooooooo nice to meet up with a friend. While she was at work on the Monday I toured the Jim Thompson House with two Canadian women who were staying at my guesthouse. The three of us had lunch then went our separate ways. That afternoon I went for a 2.5 hour massage (complete heaven) then went to Michelle’s hotel to just hang out in her room and relax until she returned from work. We actually ate dinner at the Jim Thomspson House.
A funny thing happened to me on the way to Singapore… I went to the MBK Centre, a mall across the way from where I was staying, to get my legs waxed. The woman doing my legs wanted to give me a Brazilian bikini wax (i.e., wax away all of my pubic hairs) and I insisted that she not do this. All I wanted was a small bikini wax in anticipation of my beach trip in a few days, in Malaysia. The woman insisted I needed that Brazilian wax: “So sexy. So sexy.” I mentioned that my husband wouldn’t agree and EVEN SHE admitted that her husband feels the same way. No matter, she went ahead and a bit too far over my protestations. So there you have some nitty gritty and perhaps too much personal information but it is such funny story and cultural interchange.
One week later…. I returned from visiting friends in Singapore and a few days in Pulau Tioman in Malaysia. I couchsurfed during the second part of my trip in Bangkok where I stayed with a very lovely, warm, and intelligent woman of 36. Unlike Patrick, in Vientiane, Nuch and I clicked and spent our evenings together. During the day I wandered the streets of Bangkok’s old city centre. I did not go into any wats or the Grand Palace but did go to the Museum of Siam to see “The Two Planets Series.” I was told that exhibition was not open to the public until the next day; I explained it was advertised as opening that day and I had gone to the museum especially to see the videos. After a phone call I was let me in for free (i.e., waived the $10USD) and was able to see the whole museum as well as the four videos that were still closed to the public. The videos are a humorous illustration of cultural differences between East and West, showing how a group of villagers and farmers react to Western paintings of villagers and farmers in Europe. These “unsophisticated” villagers expressed their feelings with such extraordinary freedom that I could not help but smile. The artist was clearly not making fun of them but demonstrating the vast cultural differences and the fact that Westerners, or anyone with a higher education, may have lost innocence and spontaneity when it comes to art.
That afternoon I plan went to Galerie N, a contemporary art gallery, to see the show “Dwelling in a Space: Patoong Collage & Installation” by Gi-ok Jeon. Following this excellent exhibition I explored Chinatown before meeting Nuch for supper.
I arrived by train (3rd class — 15 baht! — that’s 50 US cents — open windows and very hot) in the early afternoon. A German woman and American woman who were staying at the same guesthouse as me in Ayutthaya joined me for lunch at the day market and we then spent the afternoon and evening, including supper at the night market, with each other. Ayutthaya is not a very beautiful area however the Historic City of Ayutthaya makes the visit worthwhile. Julie (the German woman) and I rented bikes and cycled the city and went to many wats and visited a market beside one of them. We had a wonderful day riding about, stopping and taking in the sites, and just enjoying the day.
So…. not to toot my own horn too… I have to admit that because I try so hard to speak in my pidgin Thai (or any other language, depending on the country I am in) I tend to have people open up to me. This was the case when I bought coffee and tea for the three of us one morning at the market and then later that day when I walked up to workers by a canal. One was resting so I asked him if he was the boss. He laughed so I proceeded to ask him if he was just resting. Yes! He then told me he and his friends were cutting weeds along the water (which was very clear to me but I was just trying to make conversation). They then all stopped to rest and one of them took out something that was clearly alcoholic and potent and put it in his gator-aide like bottle. Anyway, they let me take photos of them and we continued to talk about nothing in particular since none of us could truly communicate with each other. All of this with my very crappy Lonely Planet phrase book that never has the phrases you want but luckily has a dictionary in the back and some words in the phrase areas that helps me cobble stupid sentences together. I love this!! The people and food REALLY make travel. So does good scenery and the odd wat or two…
I stayed at TR Guesthouse. Toh (the owner of the guesthouse) is so real, friendly, and helpful. At the market, close by, supper was 45B. Breakfast 30B. You can’t beat those prices. At breakfast at the market a man was curious about me so we talked about early retirement and working in a library. At lunch, men were laughing at my Thai. When cycling the route by one of the wats a man selling water was also very impressed and tickled by my Thai. In any case, I was having a great time trying… I spent the day riding a rented bicycle through the historical sites and the countryside and finally became watted out. In the countryside of Sukhothai – I partook in a wonderful cycling tour which was something I would not have easily figured out on my own two wheels. The tour consisted of six hours of cycling with a German couple who also took the tour. We cycled along rice paddy pathways and back country roads. We passed by a tobacco farm where a boy came running in costume, greeting us as we cycled by. Upon my return to the guesthouse I spent the rest of the day reading and drinking watermelon juice, ginger tea, and resting. A perfect day.
Three days in the small city Chiang Mai! My first impression was surprise that I did not fall in love with it — perhaps because the guesthouse is in a backpacking district, which I had been successful in avoiding thus far. In general, Thailand is not my favourite place in Southeast Asia. Perhaps if I travelled further north in Thailand I’d have felt differently. People ask me which country is my favourite. It is not easy to answer since I seem to adore Vietnam, Cambodia, and Lao — particularly the first two countries, But, I do know that Thailand is my least favourite. it just never got under my skin despite really liking the people and the food.
My first day in Chiang Mai I drifted in and out of the alleys after visiting the morning market and then ate a fantastic vegetarian breakfast and drank a very strong and excellent Thai coffee. Since I stayed in the old city – this is where I spent the day. I found a place for a full-body Thai and a foot massage. I then happened to bump into Liliane, the German woman, who I met in Sukhothai. We strolled together and went to SP Chicken – a resto that we stumbled upon and where they roast lemongrass- and garlic-stuffed chickens out front on a vertical spit beside a wall of glowing charcoal. We sat beneath the restaurant’s aluminum awning on plastic chairs and ate sticky rice, papaya salad, and those flavour-packed birds, hacked into pieces and served with a sweet, spicy dipping sauce along with Singha beer with ice. Another perfect meal. In fact, it may have been the simplest and best meal I ate in Thailand.
One of my days in Chiang Mai I was picked up by bus and taken to The Chiang Mai Thai Farm Cooking School where I learned how to make: green curry and chicken, pad thai, chicken and basil, papaya salad, tom yum soup, sticky rice and mangoes (my favourite dessert in Thailand and Laos). For your quick perusal, here are a few photos of the preparation and final products as well as our enthusiastic instructor:
- Thailand is an emerging economy and considered a newly industrialized country. It had a high growth rate from 1985 to 1996 – averaging 12.4% annually
- 85% of pineapples in the world are exported from Thailand
- 75% of rice exported throughout the world comes from Thailand
- rice is Thailand’s most important crop
- Many of the hard drives in computers come from Thailand
- Exports account for more than two-thirds of Thailand’s GDP
- 50% of the labour force is in agriculture
- 1100B is the typical annual pay for a tobacco farmer and the whole family — all who usually work on the farm
- Thai chilies are hottest when they are orange and less so when they are red or green
- Finally, not a factoid, per se — but I’ve never seen so many 7-Eleven stores as I have in this country and most are overly air-conditioned and keep their doors open so that the air-conditioners have to work even harder!
Conclusions… I think if I went travelling north of here and into the countryside I’d enjoy Thailand more. Just being on a farm outside of Chiang Mai, for the cooking lessons, and having cycled in the countryside of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya proved to me that I could really enjoy myself in Thailand. I liked Bangkok very much but had enough after 5 days. And I just did not fall for Chiang Mai – but so it goes. Travelling from Bangkok up to Chiang Mai the land was flat with lots of rice paddies, and factories on the side of the main roads. When I got closer to Chiang Mai the landscape slowly changed to small hills/mountains. When I left Chiang Mai to go to northeastern Laos the landscape changed again to more mountains and valleys filled with agriculture.