Thursday, June 30, 2005

Thailand, Part 3: Parks with Soundtracks, Disco-ball Volkswagons, and 8 Pairs of Socks

Alright, can of caffeine, Thailand tour book, K-OS on my iTunes…..check, check, check. All set for writing Part 3.

It was pretty hard to top Wat Pho. Although the Grand Palace was right next door, it was closed by the time we got out of the temple. So we quickly proceeded to Plan B, which happened to be a few minutes of chilling out at the small park across the intersection (which may or may not have been called Suan Saranrom. I wouldn’t put money on it).

I was kinda surprised by the park, not in particular by its natural beauty or peaceful setting, but more in the small things we learned there about Thai culture. Almost as soon as we arrived, we noticed a circle of 8 or 9 young guys kicking around a ball, often high into the air, like it was a hackey-sack. As it turns out, they were playing a game called “takraw.” The object is to keep a woven rattan ball in the air using any part of the body except the hands. These guys were amazing, the speed and acrobatic agility required to play makes tennis look like a beginner sport. And these guys were playing in 40 degree heat. Nuts.

As we walked around, we also noticed that even parks in Thailand are an exercise in extremes. I mean, why have only one fountain when you can pack ten into a park the size of a city block, or just one gazebo when you can have five? Crossing bridges over small ponds and moats, we made our way around the park to the tune of piped-in elevator music blaring from speakers placed on 9-foot posts. It was kind of surreal, to be honest.

From there, we went back to Rachel and Mikey’s place to rest and recoup for the evening’s activities. We chose a fancy restaurant and dined on soft-shell crab in curry, duck with lychees (a white, juicy Asian fruit with a tough outer skin, which is peeled away, and a hard inedible seed at its centre), an interesting pork dip, and a delicious yellow curry with chicken and yams, followed by a dessert of sticky rice topped with a scoop of coconut ice cream. It was a total blow-out, but well worth the money.

Just outside of Nana Plaza (another go-go bar district, three floors of bars built around a central open space, similar to Patpong the night before, but with more of a theme orientation), we spotted a food stall selling one of the more unique delicacies available on the streets of Bangkok. Yes, those are bugs. And yeah, I have it on good authority that this wasn’t just a photo opportunity, people go there to eat. Fortunately, I was still full from dinner and didn’t need a snack.

We met up with Rachel’s Aussie friends and proceeded to the coolest bar I went to while I was there, the Volks Bar. This place was incredible – it was a VW camper bus, pop-top and all, that had been converted to a moveable bar. You could even book it for a private party if you wanted: they’d park it in front of your house if the price was right and serve your guests all night long. We sat on stools along its side as tuk-tuks and other traffic passed behind us, inches away from where we were sitting. As the disco ball spun around, we downed some cocktails ( I think one of mine was called an “elephant kick”…luckily, it contained no elephant), wondering if a bar like that would even be legal in Canada. I’m sure the liquor licensing laws would kill that one real fast.

It was an early night since we were flying out to our next stop, Chiang Rai, very early the next morning. We said our goodbyes to Mikey (who had to work) and arrived at the airport while it was still dark outside. For breakfast, we chowed-down on some burgers from Burger King. In Thailand, just about anything goes as a breakfast food. The flight was pretty open and all three of us managed to get a row of seats all to ourselves.

Chiang Rai is in the far north of Thailand, near the “Golden Triangle” an intersecting point between Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar. The city is ancient, founded in 1262 during the time of the extinct Lanna Kingdom. Although the modern city of Chiang Rai isn’t particularly noteworthy for its architecture or tourist destinations, it’s well-known for its Night Bazaar and as a starting point for “treks” into the surrounding countryside. And trekking was exactly what we were there for.

We arrived at the airport, which, for no reason any of us could explain, smelled like a mixture of beets and liquid nitrogen. It’s possible that after Bangkok, we were just smelling the unfamiliar scent of clean air again, as if for the first time. As we made our way into town, we noticed that unlike in Bangkok (where traffic seemed to be made up almost entirely of taxi cabs and tuk-tuks at times), the locals preferred to travel by pick-up truck or motorbike. We passed more motorbike dealerships in Chiang Rai than I’d probably seen in my entire life up to that point.

Our taxi left us in the middle of town, and after spinning around in circles a few times, we found our bearings and set off on a long walk, often down sketchy alleyways, to our guesthouse where we were staying for the night.

In Thailand, a guesthouse is kind of like a cross between a youth hostel and a flea-bag motel. In other words, they were unbelievably cheap and catered to travelers exclusively. You could get your own room, priced based on the number of beds and whether you wanted a fan, an air conditioner, and/or a private bathroom. Typically, the entire bathroom doubled as a shower stall, with a showerhead emerging from the wall right next to the sink and toilet. Unfortunately, “drainage” was often a theoretical concept instead of a practical one. We also encountered another Thailand quirk as we moved northwards: toilet paper became increasingly hard to find, often replaced with a hose. And we also found that the term “toilet” was also open to interpretation, as was the concept of “flushing.” You’d be surprised at how fast you adjust to that sort of thing, though. Necessity is the mother of adaptation as well, it seems.

Our guesthouse was built in the Northern style out of teak wood, and our room (at $3 Canadian, split three ways) was the cheapest accommodation of the whole trip. The rest of the afternoon was spent criss-crossing downtown researching, re-researching, and finally settling on and booking a trek for the next day.

That evening, we made our way to Chiang Rai’s famous Night Bazaar. The variety and quality of the goods for sale there was staggering. Unlike Chatuchak in Bangkok, the Bazaar catered mostly to tourists and was one of the best places to buy hand-made crafts on the trip. Stalls sold everything from woven textiles to stone and wood carvings to silver jewelry to traditional hill-tribe clothing and head-dresses. Mike and Rachel were particularly impressed by one stall where they each bought eight pairs of ridiculously-cheap imitation brand-name socks. Judging by how pleased they were with their purchases, the trip to Chiang Rai was worth it for the socks alone.

We dined on giant prawns in spicy curry sauce and a couple of bottles of Singha in a beer garden in the middle of the Bazaar. While we ate, we were entertained sometimes by a band of Thai musicians, who played seated, and sometimes by a trio of Thai dancers. We hit up another few bars on the “Farang” strip (oh yeah, this one’s important, farang = foreigner), and had our first introduction to our fourth, and final, Thai beer: Tiger. It was good, but still, it was no Singha.

Okay, my caffeine’s worn off now, drawing another part of our story to a close. Check out Part 4: Elephant Snot, Akha Tea, and a World Vision Moment, coming up real soon.


At 2:05 AM, Blogger Michael said...

Those socks were amazing! The key is that they were real dri-fit socks, brand name shmand name, those suckers can cost 12 bucks a pairs.

Loving the tale, btw. It seems so far away already.

(And tiger--malay beer technically)

At 2:32 AM, Blogger Michael said...

(And of course by malaysian, I meant singapore)

At 8:58 AM, Blogger Andrew said...

Thanks, man! You're right, it seems like a dream now. Part of why I'm trying to remember as many of those little details as I can, so we never lose them.

Yeah, yeah, dri-fit, sure. ;) I never said they weren't a good deal...

At 9:49 AM, Blogger Rachel said...

The socks were the best part of the trip!!! I'm loving them - want to go back to Chiang Rai just for the socks...

Great travel diary Andrew! It does feel like a million years ago so it's nice to have it written down in detail... And as you may know the Chaitons are not particularly noted for their attention to detail!


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