Friday, January 10, 2014

From Bali to Bangkok

9 to 10 January 2014

We left Bali and flew directly to Bangkok, with little excitement.  Though I did enjoy this young rolling luggager at the airport, who has the right kind of luggage even at his early age.

And the drink cans on board Air Asia gave us an indication of what we were about to encounter - countries where we can't even read a drink label.  Or just about anything.  Richard had Coke Zero, which is somewhat recognizable.  I had some strange herbal drink that tasted like iced tea with honey.  I have no idea what herbs were in there.  I did ask the flight attendant to read it and make sure there wasn't any mango.  Other than that, zero clue.
We did all the normal Customs and Immigration things one does in a new country, found our luggage, and consulted with the airport info center.  Turns out the airport isn’t in Bangkok proper, but rather about an hour taxi ride outside the city.  Add in rush hour traffic because we’re now approaching late afternoon.  

 Factor in various protests against the current government (the most recent president is the wife of a former president who is in jail having been found guilty of corruption, embezzlement, and a host of other crimes against the people of Thailand) and you have a colossal traffic jam.  It took almost forever to get to our hotel, but we got there and settled into our room.  Rooms.

We have an “executive double room” which is hotel-speak for a small suite.  There’s a front room with an L shaped couch in cranberry velour, with beige pillows.  A small table with chairs for eating.  Large flat screen TV, long black desk and counter with a mini fridge.  Tiny balcony with red drapes.  Then a door into the bedroom, which has a wardrobe and drawers in black, a king bed with a pink comforter, another TV, odd and incongruous bright green shelf “nightstands,” another tinier balcony with matching red drapes, and an adequate bathroom except the sink is behind the door to the bedroom.  (It connects to both main rooms.)  We splurged on this small suite because we get all this space, plus free wifi, for all of around $30 a night.  Although breakfast is not included.  (We were so spoiled by brekkie in Bali!)  Anyway, it feels luxurious to have two whole rooms to ourselves!  I have to admit the décor is delightfully tacky – Richard calls it motel modern.  Very undistinguished.  Actually, almost too ugly to photograph for the blog and record for posterity.  The singer in the bar/restaurant downstairs matches the décor – he should have retired a decade or two ago.  He sings old American hits in not quite the right key, or something.  His notes aren’t quite as out-of-colour as the bright green nightstands – but he does seem to sing in a karaoke style.  We find it both annoying and amusing at the same time.

We’ve gone out and done a bit of exploring – our neighbourhood is not in the touristy center of town, but off to one side (I think it’s east, at least it is on the maps we’ve seen, but I can’t find the compass on them so who knows….) – anyway, we’re in a Thai neighbourhood.  There are a few apartment buildings, another hotel or two full of predominantly Asian tourists, and all kinds of small businesses – a pharmacy, a few small groceries, a hairdresser, and a variety of stands with street food.  No sidewalks.

And shrines – some of the most gorgeous shrines we’re seen thus far!  I am entranced!  I don’t know what’s so fascinating with shrines – part of it is that I’ve always been interested in comparative religion.  (Although some of the shrines are Hindu, with statues of Ganesh; others may be Buddhist, with various Bodhissatvas in the house.)  Part of it is the pure art and architecture thing, they are just beautiful works of art and reflect the architecture of the country and culture in which they are created.  And part of it is the dollhouse thing – these are miniature temples, with little statues and small candles and bowls of food and drinks with straws (because the ancestors and spirits need to be able to drink), and draped with strands of artificial flowers – the whole thing is just amazing. 

So the shrines here in Thailand look just like the temples, with swooping roofs and eaves, gold embellishments, bright gold statues inside.  Garlands of saffron coloured flowers are draped around, and many are lit from within or outlined in tiny fairie lights.  So much care is taken to create the shrines, and to supply the spirits and ancestors with food and drink.  One difference between here and Bali is that I haven’t seen the offerings for the demons placed on the ground – that might be one of the uniquely Balinese traditions, I don’t know.

I talked with my new Balinese buddy, Rai (RAH-ee), before we left Bali, and she confirmed that the food is for the ancestors (more than the spirits and gods).  She said she has a relationship with her grandfather and great grandfather, even if they aren’t here in this world and reside in the next world or realm or dimension (we weren’t sure what to call it, both the language barrier as well as the limits of our understanding).  Anyway, so my perception of the food offerings as being a way of continuing contact with deceased family is valid.  And absolutely related to how my brothers and I will always remember our father when we have Greek food.  Or bagels and bialys from our special spot in Bellingham.  Or the way I remember my mother during all holidays, all the years of learning to cook by helping her, and how she made all the holidays special.

Anyway, it has been a poignant time, and Bali was a great place to experience that.

But Bangkok – Bangkok is wild and interesting and a mega-city full of cars and boxy buildings and a few traditional temples and shrines and permanently taupe air from the car pollution and one giant traffic jam at all hours of day and night!  It really is a crazy city, and we’re having fun exploring.

The whole thing of not being able to read the alphabet (even to be able to pronounce the name of a place) leads to some interesting communications.  Especially at meals.  Fortunately, most menus here have photos, at least at the places where we’ve been eating.  We went to a mall the other day, and Richard opted for American fast food.  I chose a Japanese restaurant.  The English in the menu was Japanese transliteration – so while the Katsu Steak looked like chicken breast, I wasn’t positive.  When the waitress came over, I asked if she spoke English; I received a blank stare.  So I tucked my arms up into “wings” and looked at her and said “bluck bluck bluck?” and she nodded and said “tsicken” – so I went ahead and ordered the “tsicken.”  A young woman at another table noticed and went into fits of giggles, and I’m sure I looked pretty silly.  But, well, I wanted to be sure it was “tsicken” and not tofu.

At breakfast, I’ve ordered toast, tea, and fruit.  Yesterday I was presented with a plate of eggs and bacon.  (I explained that wasn’t what I ordered.)  Today, even with pointing at the pictures of what I wanted, I somehow ended up with a plate of five hot dogs or sausages or something.  (I don’t know how the waiter got that out of me pointing to a plate of sliced fruit.)  I sent those back also.  I finally made a list in my little notebook with the breakfast items I’d like, and asked one of our hotel reception ladies to write the words in Thai for me.  (I now can accurately report that Thai is written left to right.  I have no clue what any of the words say.)

There are all kinds of foods, both street food and supermarket food, that we have no idea what they might be.  Jellied things, dried things, maybe fruit, maybe seafood; sometimes it's difficult to tell what the original food item was before it was made into the finished product.  And sometimes the colours are absolutely lurid - I bought an iced Thai tea today that turned out to be a milky rust colour.  With ice cubes.  (The taste was sweet milky tea with a hint of chocolate.  Rather weird.)

Oh, and the guard at the supermarket smiled and waved when I took a photo of the "birds' nest beverages," but the stock clerk told me taking photos was prohibited.  All righty then!

Ah, the amusements of travel!

Bright almost fuchsia pink seems to be popular for vehicles - buses, taxis, and tuktuks.  Tuktuks are the little three-wheeled taxis that are somewhere between a motorcycle and a rickshaw.  Today was our first tucktuk ride, and it was hilarious!   The driver weaves in and out of traffic, sometimes going in the wrong direction the way motorscooter drivers tend to, so that one's head is reeling.  But it's open in the back, sort of like a miniature float in a parade, so there's plenty of fresh air to offset any motion sickness.  And instead of room for legs to go down, as in the back of a car, there's sort of a platform just below the seat so that our legs were stretched out comfortable.  But with little to brace ourselves as we zoomed in and out of traffic.  It was a roller coaster taxi ride!  We were both giggling the whole way, and I waved at tourists and children and street vendors and people just out and about.  Most people laughed and waved back.  It really was ridiculously fun for a means of transportation!

Anyway, we have tickets for the train to Chiang Mai next week, provided the demonstrations don't close down the city as the protestors are trying to do.  Tomorrow we meet up with Richard's brother and sister-in-law, as planned.  They booked a package tour, so we'll head over to their hotel and start exploring more of the city.  (We'll meet up with them in Chiang Mai, also.)

And that's the update, and the plan for a few days!  As well as the things that make us laugh as we fumble our way around Bangkok!

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