Monday, December 19, 2005

Thai-ing One On In Bangkok

Bangkok is an assault on the senses and somewhat violently welcomes one to Asia with the honk of a tuk-tuk's horn and the hot smell of spicy street food. We stayed in the "backpackers haven" of Banglamphu in a little guest house, and eased into our own backpack lifestyle. We ate curry for breakfast two days in a row, and felt proud when the friendly Thai women nodded at us approvingly and said, "You eat Thai breakfast!"...meaning we weren't caving to omelettes and muesli cereal (yet!) like many Westerners and got acclimated to the time zone, temperature and sensory experiences of this part of the world.

It actually seemed less polluted to me than 8 years ago, but many of the cabs and tuk-tuks are running on natural gas/butane. It seems like Bangkok is embracing its top position as a tourist destination of SE Asia and doing its best to romance visitors with growth and modernism. New malls and buildings are springing up everywhere, and while the scaffolding and ladders made of nothing but bamboo give you pause, you do feel energy and optimism.

Andy and I visited a big shopping center (the MBK center) to work on getting the cell phone going, and honestly, it was too overwhelming for me. Yes, that's right -- a mall was too overwhelming! Probably because it was 7 full floors of sensory overload in the ways of cell phones, electronics, knock off clothes, questionably real cosmetics, Thai handicrafts and shops brimming with jellied and fried sweets one only sees in this part of the world.

We also spent a day exploring some of Thailand's most beautiful Buddhist temples -- Wat Pra Kaew and Wat Pho. (wat is temple) It's so hard to explain these sites because they are unlike anything we have in the West. The temple sites are littered with stupas -- tall structures that point to the sky with a rounded edge and look somewhat like upside down turkey basters (but with a rippled-ridge, bulbous bottom) and are covered with everything from gold to glass to porcelain. These structures glitter and glimmer and look like a set of multicolored disco balls exploded on their outside. Surrounding some stupas, demon monkey creatures stand about guarding them from the spirits of evil. The devil monkeys have wild painted faces and clown red mouths, yet a severe wild creature face, and they wear glittering uniforms of mirror and glass mosaics.

And then there are the Buddhas of each temple.... Tens and twenties and hundreds of golden buddhas statues abound in the temples themself, all with elegant faces, almond eyes made of mother-of-pearl and elongated fingers and toes. Their sizes vary: some 5' high and others are 2' high, a famous reclining ones number 46 m long while a very hallowed small one is no more than 2' high but made of emerald. Because it's winter right now, all of the Buddha statues are wearing some sort of a swath of saffron-colored keep them warm! The King of Thailand even changes the Emerald Buddha's clothes himself in a special ceremony.

You see tons of monks around Bangkok and I love that! So many shades of monks clothing to enjoy--from traffic cone orange to marigold to sunflower and golden brown. Definitely a dream for a girl who loves orange! Most all boys in Thailand spend at least a year in the monastery, and some remain for many years or permanently. On the Chao Praya ferry, there are special seats that this painted across the back: "Reserved for Monks". Yet, Bangkok is a modern city and we saw many a monk carrying a cell phone and talking on it. That, of course, begged the question: "Where does a monk keep his cell phone?", as those robes don't seem to have pockets.

Our last night, we enjoyed walking in Khao San, a set of chaotic streets that sell everything from pad thai to postcards, cocktails to clothes, and ate from street vendors. Bangkok seems to be like nowhere else in that regard -- every street has at least 3 vendors cooking behind large metal, wheeled carts with a hot griddles and fresh ingredients, ready to cook you noodles, banana pancakes, bbq corn or cut you fresh mango or pineapple that you eat with a toothpick. You can imagine the melange of smells on this street...warm spices, freshly stir-fried veggies, sweet pancakes, pungent meat (blech!), ripe fruit and burning incense, the common offering to the spirit houses prevalent in every shop and home. Only in Thailand!!!


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