My week in Bangkok. I’ll pause here for those that need a moment.
My first experiences of Thailand revolved around the biggest, most ‘modernized’ city. The first things I came across, of course, were the heat and the strange non-Roman script written on all the signs and billboards. Some signs, thankfully, did have English transliterations. They seem to accompany most major highway signs around, however translating words from Thai into English or Roman letter spellings doesn’t seem to be incredibly effective. No two spellings of any place or name seem to be the same. There are some signs that will read ‘Phayathai’ or ‘Phaya Thai’ or ‘Phaytthai,’ all in the same city block, making you wonder if it is all the same place or one is the road name and one is a district name? At least Phayathai usually contained the same letters. Sometimes those will change, and a ‘t’ will be replaced with a ‘d’ or ‘p’ for ‘b,’ etc, etc. And forget trying to pronounce the names on your own. Even after hearing it spoken correctly, there are several sounds in Thai that native English speakers have a difficult time producing. In addition to those linguistic differences, Thai is a tonal language. Even if you get the pronunciation right you are probably saying it with a flat tone instead of a rising tone and now you’ve changed the word completely. That is how I’ve felt so far, anyway. Most of my attempts to speak Thai result in people just staring at me like I might as well just say it in English. However, I did seem to have some luck with the phrase ‘how much does it cost?’ I was excited when someone understood me and answered me in Thai, but my joy was short lived as I realized almost immediately that I did not know how to count in Thai, and therefore still had no idea how much my rice cost.
I can’t speak Thai, other than hello, thank you, how much does it cost, and I don’t understand. I can’t read Thai either. It’s all a bunch of meaningless scribbles to me; very fancy, intricate scribbles with no spaces. So even though everything is fairly well labeled and the road signage is good (better than several places we visited on my road trip through Europe last year), I still can’t tell what they say. Something is the number fifty. Some place is 50 kilometers away? Fifty meters? Or the name of something has the number 50 in it? I don’t know. There were signs on most of the various food carts lined up along the sidewalks by our hotel, but I still couldn’t figure out what they were selling. I wonder if this is what it feels like to be illiterate. Words are everywhere but they are meaningless. What a truly terrible, awful feeling that must be. I can tolerate it only because this is temporary for me, and sometimes there will be a few scattered English words amongst all the pretty scribbles.
My ignorance can be beneficial sometimes though, too. I am not always sure what it is I am eating, since I can’t read the food cart signs and certainly do not yet have the ability to ask what’s in a dish. If it looks good and is not clearly a fish or an octopus tentacle wrapped around a stick, I’ll try it. I do not think I would be as adventurous with trying new foods if I could read all the ingredients ahead of time. There is a lot of soup and hot food here, which seems counter-intuitive to the stifling heat, but kind of makes sense when everyone is selling the food curbside and you want to cook away bugs, parasites, and other germs. The peppers are different too. The spicy food fans in my program rave about them and lament already that they can’t get them at home. I am not a spicy food person, I am just not used to eating it and will have to work my way up that particular ladder, but I have had a few meals with certain hotness to them. It still made my eyes water a little bit and I still needed to drink plenty of water, but it wasn’t as…searing, blinding, immediate overbearing spicy that I was expecting. It was no ghost chili (thank god for that) but it is a nice little red pepper that adds a bit of a kick to the rice, and probably about all that I can handle at the moment. The first week in Bangkok I didn’t actually eat much at all after the hotel breakfast in the morning (they had silver dollar pancakes and a few other western choices). It was not for the lack of food, there were food carts lining almost every street, but it was this damned heat again. It was just too hot to want to eat. Unless it’s ice cream. I’ve seen locals eating ice cream along the streets frequently and it is genius. I cannot recall a time a small cone of ice cream tasted better than the one I had at ten in the morning after walking around outside all morning. Whoever told me they did not have dairy here lied. I have not seen much cheese, but there is plenty of delicious ice cream. So there was no need for me to stock up on eating ice cream all the time the month before I left after all. Oooh well….mai bpen rai.
The first day in the city our program actually took us out of the proper city to the floating market. I thought the floating market was inside city limits. Not the one we ventured to, apparently. The one we visited was a bumpy, poorly air conditioned, three hour van ride away. Had I known how long that trip was going to take, I would not have guzzled so much water beforehand. About an hour into the journey I started to feel like I had to pee. By the second hour I desperately needed to pee, and towards the end I seriously believed I was going wet my pants and the van seat like a bladder-control-impaired 5th grader. It was not a pleasant road trip for me. Once we arrived at the market, though, it was a lot more fun. I got to meet my first Thai toilet, where you scoop water into the toilet bowel in order to flush and are supposed to throw toilet paper into the wastebasket. We rented boats and were chauffeured around the canals by two Thais, one at the front and one at the back to steer and help lock the boat onto other boats we wanted to buy things from. It was a fun little ride, but I was not prepared for the bartering or buying of things yet, especially not in a boat where 5 other people were also included in your shopping experience.
There only seemed to be a few varieties of selling boats, though. There were hat boats and clothes boats and trinket boats with the little souvenir knickknacks and packs of spices. The spices seemed to be pretty popular; all of the boat shop owners pushed their bags of saffron pretty hard. They had personal fans that folded into hats, little jade elephants and gold Buddhas, and some interesting statues in poses I was not expecting to see. I personally did not purchase anything from a boat. I did acquire a little elephant from one of the land market stalls, and haggled poorly for it. I am not great at the bartering, even when the woman handed me a calculator to show her a number I would pay. So when I fancied a red cloth purse with Thai elephants printed on it I got another one of the women in the group to help me barter.
After the market and boat ride I got to see my first elephants! We went to the Thai cultural center or some sort of place where they had one young elephant with a bow in her hair and what looked like a tattoo on her bum of another elephant. Visitors could take photos with her as she sat down and posed for 30 baht or so, with your own camera, though, of course. Just like at the market where they had big snakes for photo opportunities, 200 baht. It’s a ‘we provide the animal, you take your own photo’ system. The center provided elephant rides, too, but only very short ones. You ride in two atop their back in one small circle. After we got to pet the elephant, there was a short show. They showed us how the elephants take baths, how the riders get on and off, how they used to pull logs, and how the elephants like to dance. The baby had a hula hoop she swung around her trunk. It was adorable, but I hoped that the animals were treated well off stage. They did that show multiple times a day, every day. After the elephant show we watched the Thai cultural show. They demonstrated some traditions of the culture, like dancing and Muay Thai boxing, to the tune of their xylophone band. It seemed a little silly to some, but the kids acting in the show were hilarious. Despite the fact that most of the day involved us sitting and watching, or sitting and traveling, when we got back I showered and fell asleep straight on through morning. The jet lag and the heat combined knocked me out.
The rest of the week I stayed a lot closer to the city. One day a few of us ended up walking around who knows where, and possibly ended up in a section of Chinatown where they work on electronics. We crammed four of us into the back of a tuk tuk and sped off across town to another part of the city where we were equally lost for a while. We did get to see the city, though, trough various modes of transit. It is quite a large area, that I am sure would be more fun to navigate with someone who spoke Thai. Three of us did manage to visit the temple of Wat Po one day, though. Wat Po is the home of the giant gold reclining Buddha and one of the largest collections of Buddha statues in the world, I believe. Everything there was on a much larger scale than I had pictured. I thought it would be one building, one temple, with the big Buddha in one room, and then maybe all the others collected in another room or several rooms. It turned out that the reclining Buddha had the temple all to himself. I knew it was going to be a grand statue, but actually standing next to it really drives the feeling home. The rest of the grounds were actually a pretty big area with various smaller buildings and collections of Buddha idols, all of which it is compulsory to remove your shoes before entering. All of the buildings had these massively intricate roofs, covered in bright reds and golds and greens. Even the stone guard statues were precisely detailed. I absolutely loved the detailing of all the artwork and architecture, as well as all of the bright colors up against the whites of the walls. It really is beautiful. I wished I could read the plaques explaining the stories and histories of the various pieces. And then I thought this could be a great setting for something in a book and vowed to find a way to incorporate it in one of the many fabulous pieces I plan to produce someday.
One of the last things I did before our orientation really began was visit the Chatuchak weekend market, the largest outdoor market in the world. Or at least it felt that way. One of the flight attendants on my plane from Hong Kong to Bangkok actually first told me about this place. It turned out to be just one skytrain stop away from where the hotel was. Much like Bangkok itself, the market was overwhelming. We walked in and didn’t know where to start. It was an immediate sensory overload; you don’t know what to look at first. I hadn’t gone in with any idea of something specific to buy, but anything you might want was probably there somewhere. There is a main road that curves around, and the store tents are set up on either side and lead into a maze of further tents and shops. It was hot and incredibly humid, of course, so to help cope with the enormity of environment I bought one of the coconut drinks. It’s a coconut with a straw in it, and I sipped the lovely cool coconut juice as we meandered around the massive market.
Inside the tents were hordes of stuff. I got a kick out of the fact that there was an area dedicated to what looked like western American wear, with plaid shirts, denim jeans, and cowhide purses. I could have been in Texas. My favorite place we ran into was a tiny little shop with some of the weirdest jewelry. There was a cuff bracelet formed like a skeleton hand. They had rings made to look like a tooth that reminded me of my friend back home who is in dental school. I’m not sure she’d like a tooth on a ring, though, when she deals with them all day in people’s mouths. They had all sorts of steampunk meets Goth trinkets like that. Most of it was all gold colored. There were a few mini skeletons of things on necklaces, as well as little anatomically correct hearts. My favorite was the brain. There was a little replica brain, on a chain, on the mannequin. It opened like a locket. I was convinced that this would be so perfect for one side of my family. And I personally loved it, because I am strange that way. The shop also had golden skydiver earrings. At first they looked like trees, but upon closer inspection they turned out to be little men under parachutes. So I had to have them. And now I do. The End.
The elephants, the floating market, Wat Po, and Chatuchak Market were the highlights of my Bangkok trip. We also found a nice little rooftop bar one night called the Skytrain Jazz Club. They were playing ‘Goldfinger’ and ‘Moon River’ on the sound system and had a painting of Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck from the movie ‘Roman Holiday’ on the wall. The screwdriver they made me tasted like they had just squeezed the oranges, pulp and all, into the glass. With the breeze from the height of the building and the little fans they turn on to blow gently toward your table, I think it was one of my favorite places in Bangkok to hang out. There is a vast amount of Bangkok I have not discovered, I know. I did not see much of downtown, really. By the end of my stay there, though, I was ready to leave. The air was too close; it felt dirty and crammed with people. It was just too big and too hot for me. After my four months in the rural town where I will be teaching maybe I will be ready and better equipped to handle the pace and the size of the city. For now I am happy with my exploration there, and am looking forward to exploring the rest of the country.