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13 January, 2013

Thailand: Be ready for anything (Sunday Night)

It feels like I am recounting every millisecond of this day, and I am not sure I will have as much detail going forward, though it would stand to reason I very well might, since I am recounting the events furthest in the past, and it should get easier as things become more recent.

After realizing that we were not going to the Grand Palace that day, we realized that we were very hot, and very hungry, and that we needed to find a restroom. All of these things were issues, but restroom was the first issue that needed to be addressed. Walking along the extremely scorching hot plaza near the Grand Palace, with the fumes of tour buses everywhere, we entered the first potentially bathroom-containing facility we could find, which turned out to be a nice, air-conditioned museum of sorts, in honor of the King, or someone royal (we honestly weren’t paying attention to the artifacts – we went straight for the restroom, and then sat in the cool building to regroup and look at our maps).

We decided that the best plan would be to walk toward Khao San Road, one of the more famous marketplace areas of the city, less than 1 mile away from our current location. There would be no taxis or Tuk Tuks at this point, because we just didn’t want to deal with it. We weren’t really sure where we were going, and the maps weren’t really that easy to read, but with only minimal assistance, we got ourselves quite close to Khao San Road. We didn’t even realize how close we were, actually, when we settled for finding food wherever we were (it turned out it was one street over from Khao San). We were in the backpackers part of town, which had a distinctly different feel from anywhere we’d been so far (all on our first day which, as you can tell, was like 3 days rolled into one). The neighborhood we were walking through seemed like the kind of road that would be “pedestrians only” though there were quite a few motorbikes wending their way among the people, and probably even a car or two, if I recall correctly. The first thing we saw which looked appetizing was a vending stand selling mango sticky rice. We got some. It was cheap (30 BHT = $1) and probably the best we had the entire trip. It probably doesn’t hurt that we were starving. We walked further, and came to a slightly wider road that had many shops along the sides, selling goods, food, massage, you name it. This seemed like a busy street, but in hindsight, it was quite tame compared to many other areas of the city. After wandering past numerous street vendors, not overly excited with the options available, we eventually came upon a “restaurant” located on the corner that looked tempting, with curries on the menu, and Thai people eating there. It wasn’t really a restaurant, because it didn’t have a structure associated with it. More like a few carts and tables where the food was prepared, and some tables set up with a roof over them. We ordered Panang Curry and a noodle and chicken dish of some sort – maybe garlic noodles. The dishes were about 40 BHT each, and the food was amazing.

We wandered around some more. We saw a massage shop (one of many on the street), and decided that it might be fun to get a massage. So we went in, and each had 30 minutes of foot/leg massage followed by 30 minutes of back/shoulder massage. The entire thing cost $20 US for both of us. And it was an experience, because we’d never had Thai massage before. The massages were performed by two young Thai women, one of whom spoke a smidge of English, and the other, basically none at all. There was some light conversation about where we are from, but mostly the communication was through universal signals of “this is very good.” After the foot/leg massage, which was done in the main lobby, they escorted us upstairs to a more secluded room with beds, where we could take off our shirts to have the back massage. This wasn’t a private room – there were other people getting massages there, but it was just not exposed to the general passing public. As I retell this, I can’t even believe this was the same day as the whole tailoring thing.
As we left the massage parlor, we asked them where Khao San Road was, and she told us that it was the next street over. So we wandered over there, and found that it was similar to where we’d just been, but perhaps up a slight notch in terms of the bustle. Because it was afternoon, things were still relatively quiet. We could see street vendors beginning to set up their carts because, as we would later discover, Khao San Road becomes one notch more intense of an experience at night. By this point, it was already starting to get dark, and we continued to wander around, overstimulated, tired, me still furtively edgy about the scam. When darkness fell, we wandered up and down Khao San Road several times. There are lights everywhere. There are people shooting little flashing lights up in the air. There are people shining lasers on the ground. There are vendors selling food, scorpions (yes, food), grubs (yes, food), and all manner of tourist schlock, from t-shirts, to bags, to jewelry, to clothing. We managed to “escape” purchasing only one piece of tourist junk – a laser pointer that makes pretty decorations on the ground. Not worth 300 BHT in the literal sense, but something that a 6 year old will probably find exciting (and we can only hope that he doesn’t discover that, if you unscrew the end of it, the thing becomes a regular laser pointer with several hundred meters range, and extremely high intensity – my prediction is that this will be taken away within 2 days of it being given).

I don’t know what time it was when I finally lost all patience for the crowds and the overstimulation and the general feeling of “there’s really nothing else I need to see here.” Maybe it was 8pm? 9pm? Later? We wandered out of Khao San Road to a more main road where it would be likely to find a taxi. At this point, I was intent on not being screwed again by anyone. We walk up to a taxi driver, and ask him if he can take us to our hotel, Oriental Residence Bangkok. As we would encounter repeatedly, he had no idea what or where this was. We showed him a map. He says “200 BHT” to which we say “No – use the meter.” He says he won’t use the meter. We start walking away. He calls after us “150 BHT.” We keep walking. He calls out, in despair, “OK! 100 BHT!” In hindsight, what I now realize is that this was our first (and perhaps only?!) successful negotiation during our entire stay in Thailand. But, ironically, it was a failed negotiation, because we walked away, and didn’t take it. I had become so set on not being screwed again, and I decided that it was “getting screwed” for him to not use the meter. We ended up walking up to a Tuk Tuk driver (they don’t meters), and offering him the same 100 BHT that we’d just turned down (to take a less safe means of transportation at that!). He countered with 200 BHT, to which we declined. Then his final offer was 150 BHT, which we, for some unknown reason, accepted. To paraphrase a quote a famous Seinfeld episode where George botches a negotiation with NBC for their “Show About Nothing,” Jerry, hearing this, chastises George saying “So let me get this straight? You held out? For less?” Yes, it’s true, the result of our “negotiations” was that we ended up paying more. To make matters more interesting, this Tuk Tuk ride was probably, bar nothing, the single riskiest activity I’ve engaged in ever. Speeding, weaving, swerving, almost hitting cars, almost hitting people, driving on the wrong side of the road. It was so utterly surreal, all we could do was laugh, and I am pretty sure I captured good video of a chunk of the ride.
Somehow, without any mishaps, we made it back to the hotel. I guess it was only 8:30pm or so, because I recall wishing we’d been just a little bit earlier, so that I could have gone in the swimming pool, which closed at 8:00. Instead, I went to the fitness room, which had yoga mats. I spent about 45 minutes doing some kind of yoga, though it wasn’t really a structured practice. Just some stretching, a little of this, a little of that. Not long after I returned, we crashed into our bed, wiped out from fatigue.

The lesson for the first full day in Thailand was quite simple: there are times in life where one is not entirely in control of one’s own destiny. Actually, the truth is, most of the time we are not in control of anything. But there are certain times where it becomes obvious that the only way to get through it all is to sit back and enjoy the ride.

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