Saturday, February 09, 2008

Day 3: What Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace

Today we decided to go see the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew, which is inside the palace grounds. To get there, we rode our Skytrain line down to the end of the line, which is right at the river. We then got on the Chao Phraya river taxi. This was extremely enjoyable. The taxis stop at the many docks along the river to load and unload passengers. They are fast, however, and you can't dawdle. In some cases where only a person or two are getting on or off, they may literally stop for 5 seconds before they are off again. A woman with a little metal tube with change in it, that she shakes a lot so you can hear her, comes around to sell tickets. The trip up the river to the pier where the Grand Palace is located costs 15 baht, or about 45 cents. An unbeatable bargin, in my view. The river along the river is very nice; it's cool and pleasant. This is pretty much the best way to travel in BKK. Here's a short video of the ride.
We get off at the North 9 dock. The docks are labeled from the Central Pier, which is where we got on, North 1, 2 3, etc. Couldn't be easier.

We leave the boat, walk through the inevitable markets surrounding the exits, and head to the entrance to the Grand Palace. Along the way, at least two people try to tell us that the Grand Palace is closed for a Buddhist holiday, which is a common scam. We know better, of course, since only a person who did absolutely no research (and was also very gullible) would fall for this one, since every single guidebook and website mentions that this scam is very common, especially around the Grand Palace.

We enter and buy our tickets, which are expensive (for Thailand) at 250 baht, or ~$8. The main thing to see in the palace grounds is Wat Phra Kaew where the Emerald Buddha is housed. This is the most sacred Buddha in Thailand, and is a very, very big deal. It is quite small, actually, at around 60 cm, but it is really beautiful nonetheless.

The Wat it is housed in is something else, too. Talk about decorated. Wow. Here are some pictures of the grounds. There are no pictures allowed of the Emerald Buddha.

A huge gold chedi.

I love these guys. They are temple guardians, and a pair of them are located at each entrance.

Every surface of the buildings is highly decorated, as can be seen here. This is the temple that houses the Emerald Buddha.

Here is a view of the compound.
I really like these things too. They are called Nok Tantima, and are very cool. They are like half bird, half human. A kind of guardian, I think.

Another view of the other guardians.

Here is what the pair looks like guarding the entrance.

You can really see the Chinese influence with this guy.

This is a statue of the hermit who is supposed to have invented yoga and herbal medicine.

These guys surrounded the entire chedi base.

The entire inside wall of the Wat is covered in a huge mural depicting scenes from the Ramakien, which is the Thai national epic, borrowed from the original Hindu. See the link for more info. Many of the statues in the Wat depict creatures from this story. Here are some samples.

After leaving the Wat, you walk through a little of the palace grounds, most of which are not open to the public.

After this we decided to head back to the hotel, since it was really, really hot that day. We walked back to the pier and took an extremely crowded river taxi back to the central pier. It was obviously rush hour, since the boat was shoulder to shoulder crowded. This was kind of an adventure in itself, really. Like I said, the boats do not linger at the pier, and you have to be at the back and ready to exit when they get to the pier. Lots of fun.

For a late lunch, we went back to MBK and went to a dim sum place called Mr. Ming. It is probably the McDonald's of China, but it was really good, and really cheap. We weren't really hungry, so we just got 6 small plates of dim sim, and these with a coke and a bottle of water was 133 baht, or about $4.25. Can't beat that.

L wasn't feeling great, so for supper we just decided to order room service at the hotel. It was actually pretty good, and wasn't too expensive.

Day 2: Chatuchak Weekend Market

We are having trouble getting our sleep cycles back to normal. I could not go to sleep until after 4 am last night, and then woke up at 6, went back to sleep at 9, and slept until 2 pm. Not good. Gotta get that sorted out before Monday, when I have to be back at the office.

Anyway, the second day we were there, Sunday the 27th of January, we decided to check out Chatuchak Weekend Market. Some people claim that this is the largest market in Asia, with between 8,000 and 12,000 stalls, depending on where you read. All I know is that it is massive. The nice part is that the Skytrain goes right there; it is at the northern terminus of the longer line.

I think that pretty much anything you want could be found at this market, if you could find it. We had a copy of Nancy Chandlers excellent Bangkok shopping map, which helped a lot, but it was still a challenge. It was packed with people, crowded, stuffy, chaotic and amazing all at the same time. Some people apparently stay here for two whole days. That was far more that we could take, but it is definitely an experience not to be missed. I did buy a small painting for 450 bhat (~$15) which I really like.
There are outdoor sections and covered sections. It is kind of organized into areas (clothing, pets, etc.). We walked through a good part of the market, but I don't think we saw more than a fraction of it.

This is my favorite picture from the market, although I honestly didn't take that many from there. These are fighting roosters for sale. I regret that I didn't try to find out how much they were, because I was very curious about how much a good fighting rooster would cost.
There are also, it is said, often rare and endangered species for sale at the market, if you know where to look and who to talk to. There were some booths with "No Photo" signs posted, but I don't know my species well enough to tell. There were tons of puppies, fish, rabbits, snakes, etc. for sale. Mostly dogs in the section we were in, but I'm sure there were more sections. I saw several times people blow drying fluffy puppies, which was pretty funny.

We had a frankly mediocre lunch at a restaurant in the market. After lunch we walked around for a while longer and then decided to head back to the hotel for a little rest.

After a rest, we had to decide where to get some late lunch/early dinner. This was always a problem in BKK, because we didn't know the area that well, and there were not a ton of places in the immediate area. We decided that we wanted to try a place I had read about called Soi Polo Fried Chicken, which is supposed to be awesome. We asked the guy at the front desk about it, but he didn't know where it was. We then grabbed a taxi that was waiting in front of the hotel (a mistake). We asked the guy about it, but he didn't know it either. After making sure he would use the meter, we asked him to take us to Soi Polo. He did take us there, but we could not find the place. On the way there, of course, he tried to get us to go to his friend's restaurant, his friends tailor shop, and everything else. We drove down Soi Polo once, but like I said couldn't find the place. In any case, after seeing the soi, L didn't want to eat anywhere on the soi. It was not a bad neighborhood, I don't think, but it was certainly not nice or anything. After failing to find the place, we asked the guy to take us to Sukhimvit Road, which is a very popular shopping and eating area. But the guy refused to take us there, saying it was too far, he had to meet his friend, etc. etc. etc! First time that has ever happened. It's not like we weren't willing to pay or anything. I think he was pissed that we wouldn't go to his friend's place After that, we just told him to take us back to the Four Seasons, which is a swank hotel very near our hotel, basically at the intersection of the road out hotel is on and the main road. We chose this because, first, the guy knew where it was, and second, there is an expensive (for BKK) and allegedly good restaurant inside called Spice Market, which we decided to try instead. So that was our adventure with a not so wonderful cabbie. On the whole, it could have been a lot worse, since the entire thing cost us a little time and, like, $2 total, so lesson learned, I guess. I had read in several places that cab drivers in BKK are different than in most cities. Whereas in most cities the cabbies are veterans who know every square inch of their city, including the best restaurants, apparently in BKK are sometimes guys from the countryside who end up driving a cab in the big city after a failed rice crop, family emergency, etc. I'm sure there are some good ones, and if you can find one, you can travel by cab for next to nothing. Traffic (which, as I said, it terrible) would still be an issue, though. Funny thing, too, almost every cab we saw was a Toyota Corolla, slightly modified with a smaller trunk and more back seat area. Says something about Corollas, I guess.

Anyway, when we got to Spice Market, it was kind of mid afternoon, and the buffet was closing in 15 minutes, and the main menu wasn't available for a couple of hours. So we decided to go to Cabbages and Condoms, which is a restaurant run by the Thai Population and Community Development Association, all the proceeds of which go to fund it's activities. The name is based on the founder's belief that condoms should be as cheap as cabbages. The food was good, and we were able to get there easily using the Skytrain, which we now realized is a huge plus. On the way back we found an internet cafe and checked our email. This cafe has a nice feature; you could use an AIM-like application on the desktop to order drinks, which were then brought to your station. Also, it cost a bhat a minute, and since a bhat is worth about three cents, it was a bargain. Two beers and 40 minutes of internet access cost 180 bhat, or around $5. Can't beat that.

Here is a picture of the painting I bought, now hung on my office wall.
That's all for now.


Friday, February 08, 2008

Day 1: MBK center and Jim Thompson house

OK, I have managed to drag myself away from Bioshock for long enough to start the more in depth, illustrated trip report. We'll see how long I can resist the allure of this fantastic game. BTW, if anyone reading this likes games, or humor, and you have not seen Zero Punctuation yet, you really owe it to yourself to check it out. It is brilliant.

OK, so the first day we were in Bangkok (BKK) we pretty much took it easy. We walked down to the Skytrain (think Chicago's el trains, but newer and nicer) station about a 5 minute walk from the hotel and rode up to the huge MBK mall. Holy crap, is this mall enormous. First off, it's seven stories tall, and fairly large laterally as well. There is a whole floor that is almost entirely cellphones. Here is a view of the central atrium area.
Among the many amusing things here was the Ronald McDonald that wais passersby. Pretty funny.

We got lunch that day in the food court at the mall. Now, food courts in Thailand are much, much different from in the US. First, and most importantly, the food is actually really good. It is also pretty cheap. The system works like this. When you enter you either buy a certain amount of tickets, or you get a debit card (which was the case here). You then go to any vendor you like, and at MBK there were probably 15, with everything from Thai food to Indian food to American food to Chinese food, and everything in between. After taking your order the vendor either takes the appropriate number of tickets, or debits your card. At MBK they have a cool system where they don't have to swipe your card, they simply place it on a little pad and it is automatic. I assume it uses RFID or the like. In any case, when you leave you either redeem leftover tickets, or pay the amount indicate on your card. It's a good system. Anyway, the food was really good. I had green curry pork and a large Singha beer, and L had a seafood pad thai and a soda. The total was 380 bhat, or about $12, and of that 120 bhat, or $3.85, was my huge beer. After walking around the mall for a while longer, we decided to leave, as it was getting crowded. You could tell that school let out because the place filled up with school kids. You could tell they were school kids because they were still wearing their uniforms.

We decided to go see the nearby Jim Thompson house and museum. Jim Thompson was an American ex OSS agent (the OSS was the forerunner to the CIA) who worked in Bangkok, fell in love with it and after WWII stayed there. He is credited with reviving the then dying Thai silk industry, and the company he started is still a major player in the industry. His house is down a peaceful soi (alley) on one of the klongs (canals) that used to me much more common in Bangkok, and at one time were the main form of transportation. His house consists of five antique Thai houses that he brought in from other parts of the country and had reassembled on site. He was also an avid collector on SE Asian art.

The house was amazing. We weren't allowed to take pictures inside the structures, but I will include some exterior shots to give you an idea.

The bottom shows what appear to be some (mostly) prehistoric pots in his collection. The really nice stuff, of course, was inside. Nicer items included an really nice Buddha (still with the head, unlike the one above), and some amazing Chinese porcelain. It was a really nice tour, and a nice location. After the tour, and walking around exploring the garden on our own, we had a drink at the cafe. We then walked back to the nearest BTS station and went back to the hotel. We were both jet lagged, so we decided to take a nap. After waking up at 8 pm, we decided, screw it, we're just going to bed.

General impressions of BKK. First off, holy crap was it hot. With the humidity (which was considerable), it was around 100 every day. I had really not expected that, since it was winter there, too. I guess when you are only 14 degrees about the equator that's what you get.

Consequently, we were not able to get as much done each day as I had thought, since it took a lot out of you just being out walking around in the heat. Speaking of walking-wow, not a real pedestrian-friendly town. First off, it is really spread out. We were in an area called Pathumwan, which is primarily a shopping area. It was nice, but it was a long way from many of the major sites. The traffic is every bit as bad as I had heard, and you are smelling diesel fumes a lot. There are also a lot of touts, primarily tuk tuk and taxi drivers. They seem to assume that any farang walking obviously wants a cab or tuk tuk ride, and you are constantly asked "Where you go?" by them. They are not really aggressive or anything, but it gets old pretty rapidly. Taxi and (especially) tuk tuk drivers are also famous for scamming tourists. Generally this is done by not wanting to use the meter, in the case of taxis, or asking exorbitant prices in the case of tuk tuks. The other side of the coin is the tuk tuk driver offering you a really cheap tour of the city (like 20 bhat an hour, around 75 cents) which will actually be a tour of gem shops and tailor shops and souvenir shops, all of which pay him a commission for each person he brings in. This is also how the famous 'gem scam' can start.

In short, it is not an easy city to visit. However, we wanted to visit someplace really different, and it was definitely that.

OK, that is enough for now. I'll post the next day tomorrow.


Thursday, February 07, 2008

We just made it home safe and sound. The trip back was not as bad as the trip there, but it never is for me. More details with pictures this weekend.


Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Well, in half an hour we go back to the Chiang Mai airport and fly back to Bangkok, and tomorrow at 6:40 am we leave for our interminable flight back to the states. I am sad to leave Chiang Mai, which really is a great city. I am even sadder about the horrible flight we have coming up. The good part is it should be significantly shorter than the flight here, which was pretty bad. The total travel time from our front door there in PV to the hotel in Bangkok was 30 hours and 15 minutes. The way back should be a little better, since the cross pacific flight is about 2 hours shorter, since you are not fighting headwinds.

I'll post more details, including pictures, over the course of the weekend. After I recover from jet lag, that is. Fun fact, we leave here at 6:40 am local time, and arrive home about 6:30 pm local time, after traveling for about 24 hours. Stupid round planet and time zones...
Today was the day we had our cooking class. We had the full day course at A Lot of Thai and it was fantastic. Yui, the instructor, was very helpful, and walked us through all of the dishes. The class is taught in her home, so the size is small, with a maximum of 8 people, so you can really get individual attention if you need it.

You start of by her showing you how to do things, then you go back to your station (which each person has) and cooking the dish yourself. They you eat it. We made three dishes in the morning, Green Curry Chicken, Chicken Stir Fry, and Pad Thai, all of which came out great.

Then, you take a break and she takes you on a tour of a local market near their home. She shows you a bunch of different ingredients and the like. This market was a real, local market where regular Thai people shop. Things were so cheap there, and other than our group, I saw one other farang, which was pretty cool. I took some great pictures, too, which I will share when I get back.

After lunch, we made Tom Yum Gong, the famous spicy Thai soup with shrimp, spring rolls, and sticky rice with mango, which is a popular dessert here. It was all fabulous. If you are very nice to me, perhaps I will make you something when I get back. First I need to make a big shopping trip to the Chinese market, though, to get some ingredients. All in all it was a great day. I came back, had my last Cuban cigar, and relaxed for a while. Now it is time for one last visit to the Night Bazaar before we fly back to Bangkok tomorrow and then home Thursday. Like I said, I will post a bunch of pictures when I get back.


Monday we went to the Elephant Nature Park another official link here, wikipedia entry here. This was an amazing experience, I must say. This park is different from the usual elephant 'dog and pony show'. At those shows, the elephants do stupid tricks that they have been taught, at Elephant Nature Park (ENP) the elephants just get to be elephants. They wander freely, while at the other parks they are chained up when not working. They woman who founded and runs the place, Lek, is an amazing person. In addition to the 31 elephants, there are also 50 some odd dogs, several cats, water buffalo, and some cattle. As you might guess, Lek is quite an animal lover. She founded this park as a place to save elephants who have been treated poorly, as many of the elephants at other places are. In fact, you watch a very good video from National Geographic that, among other things, demonstrates how elephants are trained for the trekking companies and the shows. Let's just say is in not pleasant; they basically lock them in a confined space, called a press (if that tells you anything) and torture them for between 3 and 7 days. It is not nice.

Like I said, however, SNP is different. The elephants roam freely, and form natural family groups on their own. On the way to the park, you stop at the market and load up a bunch of fruit for them to eat. At the park, you get to feed the elephants. They take the fruit right out of your hand. It was really cool. Then, after a really good lunch for the people, you take the elephants down to the river for their bath. This is like nothing else you have ever done. They lie down in the river, and you splash buckets of water on them, and scrub them down with brushes. They really seem to enjoy it. Then, after the bath, you watch and they go back to their mud hole and wallow in the mud for a bit. After this there is a long time where you can just sit in the shade and watch the elephants do their thing. Then, before you leave, you give them another bath. All in all it was a tremendous day. Wait until you see the picture of the elephant giving me a 'kiss'. It was something else. They really have some suction in those trunks.

The park is outside of town in the country, in a pretty valley. It was one of the best parts of the whole trip, and they really educate you about the plight of the elephant in Thailand, which is, to be honest, somewhat grim. They are particularly down on people who bring elephants into big cities, even Bangkok, to beg. This is very bad. After being here, I would never go to any of the other camps. They also have people that volunteer and stay there for a week or even several weeks. There were 40 volunteers when we were there. I could see how this would be quite an experience. If you come here, I strongly recommend that you visit ENP.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Well, we decided to take it easy today. After breakfast, which was terrific as usual, we went for a walk in town. We ended up having lunch at a really good middle eastern place called Jerusalem Falafel. It was great. We also did some shopping along one of the main streets in town. We also vainly looked for a place to do some laundry. We never found a laundromat per se, but we did find a place where we could drop it off and pick it up later. It should be ready at 8 tonight, so we'll head there after dinner. It is conveniently very close by.

Yesterday I finally managed to get some cigars, so I had an extremely enjoyable afternoon sitting on our porch and smoking an excellent Cohiba. Great times. Had a Romeo y Julieta today, and it was great as well.

Tomorrow we go to Elephant Nature Park which promises to be a lot of fun. I'll write all about it, including pictures, when we get back. The day after that is our cooking class.

Well, almost time to go to dinner.