Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Thailand, Part 1: Three Hours in Japan, Rooftops, and Millions of Cellphones

Thailand….well, where to begin? It was the trip of a lifetime (hopefully the first of many). When my oldest buddy Mike - we’ve known each other since Grade 4! - said that he was off to visit his sister Rachel and her hubby Mike in Bangkok, it took me a matter of seconds to realize I wanted to tag along. Of course, the actual logistics of whether or not I *could* go came later, but it was clear right from the beginning that if I passed on this one, I’d kick myself forever. A bit of negotiation at work and a bit of research online, and the answer was clear: I was going, and man, now that I’d made up my mind, those three months leading up to the trip would be lonnnng.

I was so excited the night before I left that I barely slept - which is unfortunate, because I’ve discovered that I just can’t sleep properly on a plane. At all.

I arrived in Chicago and met up with Mike at our gate. The trip to Japan was pretty uneventful (all 13 hours of it). The plane was full of Japanese and the airline food was also decidedly Japanese – teriyaki and rice was pretty popular. (On all of the flights, they fed us well - by the time we reached Bangkok, we had eaten 7 meals over the course of the full 26 hours of travel).

My three hours in Japan was more entertaining than you might expect. Even at the Narita Airport in Tokyo, their culture shines through. Everywhere you looked, there was a kiosk selling Hello Kitty merchandise or electronics. Somehow, I don’t think that this Hello Kitty Collon would sell very well in North America, but who am I to judge? Just gross, yo.

It was the little touches that made it really interesting. For example, you could actually rent a room at the airport for a half hour where you could shower and change if you wanted to (very popular with the Japanese business men). In the smoking lounges, the ashtrays actually had a lighter attached to them (efficiency at its best). Everyone who worked at the airport was very helpful and SO HAPPY. I’ve never met nicer airport employees. And all of the food kiosks advertised their meals by showing a plastic version of the food in a glass case just before the spot where you order. Even the beer came in plastic form.

Although I was excited about the prospect of free massage chairs, it turned out that the ones we found were pay-chairs. We topped off the last few minutes at the airport with a pint of beer and a snack of warm soy beans. Delicious.

I have to admit that at this point, it was adrenaline and excitement that kept me going more than anything else. Getting on another plane and flying for another 6 hours felt like cruel and unusual punishment.

After what felt like the longest day of my life, we landed at Bankok International and unloaded from the plane on the tarmac for the 3rd time in three flights (batting 1.000). As we emerged from the back of the plane and moved our way forward to the exits, the humidity hit us like a wall. My shirt was soaked through with sweat before I had even gotten off the plane. I knew right then and there that despite warnings, I had underestimated the heat by a wide margin.

Fortunately we spotted Rachel’s smiling face bobbing out of the massive throng of people gathered around the only exit gate at the airport fairly easily. We caught a cab and upon arriving at Rachel’s, we were treated to our first taste of Thai beer, a Leo (first order of business!). Her place was AMAZING and although we were exhausted, no rest for the wicked. We all agreed that a club was in order. Even though it was like 1 in the morning when we left.

Luckily, Bangkok has a wide variety of after-hours clubs (which were only slightly illegal). And she took us to one of the best, a bar on a rooftop named Josephine’s that featured water jets sprayed onto the patio to keep its patrons cool (much needed, I assure you). At the same time, we were introduced to two of Rachel’s friends from Australia, Heidi and Wendy, and to what was soon to become our favourite Thai beer, Singha (pronounced “Sing,” believe it or not). We had a lot of Singha over the next two weeks. It was delicious and very very powerful.

Although we struggled at first to place our orders, it didn’t take long to get comfortable, despite the drama that was brewing at a table next to ours (a Thai woman and her white boyfriend were having a bit of a domestic….drinks were thrown, shouting ensued, and a few slaps across the face for good measure). We lasted a lot longer than we thought we would before finally getting back to Rachel’s and passing out hard.

We started the next day relatively early with plans to get a feel for the city. After a quick breakfast, we took the elevated train to Chatuchak market, the best place to get acquainted fast with Thai culture. We weren’t disappointed.

It didn’t take us long to realize that many things in Thailand are about sensory information overload. The sights, the smells, and the sounds are all super-sized. If a Thai merchant has an opportunity to a) sell 20 or so really nice things, or b) as many things of varied quality as they can possibly fit on one table, they’ll always go for the latter. And they’re EVERYWHERE, from markets, to city streets, to beaches, even to residential streets and inside bars and restaurants. Every corner you turn, you’re faced with a new smell (often strong and often unpleasant to our pampered western noses), a new sound (often LOUD or completely alien to our fragile western ears), or something new and amazing to see (often so incomprehensible that I’d walk around for hours with my mouth hanging open in sheer awe).

In the Chatuchak market, we were treated to our first major dose of tangible information overload. They sell *everything* there, from clothing (jeans and imitation fashion labels were popular), shoes, souvenirs, furniture, silk pillows, sea shells, pewter mugs, umbrellas, statues, foodstuffs, snacks, even live animals. A whole section of the market was devoted to livestock, another to carefully groomed and blow-dried puppies and rabbits – I didn’t have the heart to think too much about what would happen to them if they weren’t sold though. If you wanted it, you could probably find it somewhere in the labyrinthine maze of the market if you looked hard enough. But the place was huge and there was no regular order to the placement of the stalls that I could see. Gifts were randomly purchased and much bottled water was had.

Upon being instructed that the only meats you can really trust in Thailand were pork and chicken, and most people choose pork, my first real Thai meal was a bowl of Tom Yum noodle soup with an iced tea. I was erroneously pleased with my “Thai” drink until Mike shattered my world and pointed out the English label reading “Lipton Iced Tea” on the other side of the bottle. I swear it tasted different though.

For the first time on the trip, we hooked up with Rachel’s Mike, who had flown in from Koh Samui earlier that morning. After a brief rest at a nearby park (where Mike and Rachel shared a glass of orange drink that they both agreed tasted like human sweat), we jumped in a cab and headed to one of the main urban “mall” areas – Siam Square, a popular teenager hangout.

Most noteworthy here were some of the stores we walked by. Thais are obsessed with Santa Claus, he’s like a rockstar there. So naturally they’d name a hamburger joint after him.

Obviously Jesus is a celebrity there, too, judging by this Holy Pizza restaurant – anyone up for a slice of Pepperoni Pope with extra cheese?

We also tried a place called “Milk Plus” (made me want to tollchock someone in the gulliver) which gave us our first look at differences in snack foods between our two cultures. In Canada, we dig the fried food and sugary pastries. In Thailand, they dig gelatinous chocolate milk products and slices of white toast with honey or caramel or pudding on top of them. The place was packed.

As we left the square area, we paused to take note of the massive concrete structures all around us. Bangkok city planners love the concrete. What you’re looking at here is concrete walkways lacing above the city like an ewok village for the rich people who don’t want to mix with the garbage and smells of the streets below, along with the structure supporting the elevated railway.

From there, we were off to MTB, which is bar none, the strangest mall I’ve ever been to. The first three floors were pretty standard mall-fare, clothing stores and the like, much like any mall you’d find here. But the fourth floor was trippy. It was thousands of square feet of nothing but stalls selling used and new cell phones, varied electronics, and bootleg software, movies, music, videogames, and any other intellectual property that could be copied and distributed for peanuts. It was overwhelming. And through it all, the various stalls compared prices with the others. There wasn’t really any competition per se in terms of prices….and yet the sheer number of competitors for sales was staggering. We must have walked past literally hundreds of stalls selling almost nothing but cell phones alone.

Off to Rachel’s then for a rest before dinner! We’ll leave it there. Up next, I’ll continue with Part 2: “Bitten Ears, Khlongs, and Reclining Buddhas”


At 1:30 PM, Blogger Sara said...

Yippee for the update - it's great hearing your views on travelling. Can't wait to hear the rest of the story.

At 10:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm still waiting for the midget hookers!

At 12:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that'd be more along the lines of "bitten kneecaps," eh?

At 4:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, great post. Can't wait to read the rest!



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