14 January, 2013

Thailand: Palaces and ping-pong (Monday)

We awoke with a plan to hit the Grand Palace as early as possible. Get there as fast as possible (taxi). See it. Then move on to something else. I don’t think we were jetlagged, but both of us had sore, tired backs from so much walking around the previous day. The hotel called a taxi for us (I don’t even recall what we did regarding food – in fact, we may have skipped breakfast). The taxi took us to the Grand Palace. But, as we arrive, something isn’t quite right. Because we’d been here yesterday, briefly, we had a vague lay of the land. The taxi was not dropping us at the main entrance. That’s weird. We get out of the taxi, and all we see around us is an entrance gate guarded by someone who looks like a guard, along with a rather seedy looking man who starts walking toward us as soon as we get out of the taxi. The man approaches and says “Temple is not open this morning! Close for special Buddhist monk ceremony! Temple open at noon!” We’re both thinking “What the fuck? When is the temple actually open?” But it doesn’t sound right. He starts telling us that what we should do is go with a Tuk Tuk driver (who happens to be sitting right there) and see Wat Arun (which we did actually want to see), plus several other stops along the river, via boat. And he tells us it will cost us 2400 BHT (that’s $80 US). We are 100% sure that this was complete bullshit, and we flatly said no. He continued debating with us, but it was really just a matter of finally walking away, which we were going to do. As we’re momentarily trapped in this discussion, a couple of Western tourists walk by and look at us, smile and shake their heads, which we both interpret as a warning that our suspicions were correct. Without much more meaningless conversation, we escape, and walk the 300 meters to the actual Grand Palace entrance. And, wouldn’t you know it? It’s open. Not closed for Buddhist monk ceremony. This sends off a flashback to the previous day, and we both realize that the story we were told about the temple being closed from 12-2pm the previous day was also a crock of shit. No matter what you want to do, they’ll start their scam by telling you that the thing you actually want is closed, for a little while. Since you are left with the vacuum of “What are we gonna do now?” it’s the perfect vulnerability to suggestions. Thus begins the tourist trap. We learned our (costly) lesson, and would (mostly) not get taken again.

I hope I don’t disappoint you too much when I start by telling you that the Grand Palace, and its associated campus, was really not all that interesting to me. Yes, the architecture was sort of cool. There were many beautiful tiled buildings and structures, with ornate patterns and colors. There were, again, many gold Buddha statues (or statues of other entities that I cannot identify). We went into the building that houses the famed “Emerald Buddha” (which is actually made of jade). It’s one of the smallest buddhas that we saw the entire trip, except for the ones you buy in the souvenir section (okay, I am exaggerating, but it was definitely underwhelming). And it was surrounded by a whole bunch of gold stuff, whose significance we didn’t understand, because I decided not to pay extra for the audio tour. Probably would have been a good idea to have tried to learn something, but I guess I just wasn’t in a learning frame of mind. Shame on me. We looked at a bunch of the more “temple-like” things, and then looked at some of the more “palace-like” things, between breaks of resting our low backs, which were both hurting. There were some spears and swords, which were not as impressive as what you’d see from medieval Europe or Roman times. There were some old rifles, which were not interesting in the least. Then, the parts of the palace buildings we were allowed to visit really had nothing of great significance or intrigue to view. The most interesting part of the experience, in truth, was watching the behavior of tourists from different parts of the world.

After a couple of hours, we’d both had enough of the palace, and food had become a priority. We decided to make our way in the same general direction, toward Khao San Road, as we had the previous day. Instead, we didn’t quite get our bearings correct, and ended up walking closer to the river, for a while, passing through a university campus. Finally, after asking directions, we realized we were closer to being on track than we thought, and again made it to the general vicinity of Khao San Road, starving. Rather than keep looking around, we stopped in the first crowded restaurant we could find. This one was an actually sit-down, indoor establishment, with a mixture of tourists and some locals. We both had Thai iced coffee, pretty much deciding to not worry about the ice anymore, which I know seems ridiculous but, for what it’s worth, I’ll fast forward and tell you that neither one of us got sick the entire trip. I had Phad Sie Eew, which was great. Melissa had Green Curry Fried Rice and it was good too. The food was very good. It’s true that we were starving, but it was still very good. We’d eaten nothing but good food so far. I would tell you the name of the restaurant, but it was only written in Thai, so I have no idea what it was called. There’s a chance I could spot it on a map, based the landmarks around there. It may or may not have been located on Soi Muban Sri Pramot, a little bit southeast of the Chaloem Maha Nakhon Expressway. If that helps you at all.

After lunch, we made our way, in the scorching heat, back to Khao San Road, to wander around and explore some more. It was less enticing this time, having seen it once before. Melissa vaguely shopped for gifts, but we weren’t really seeing much interesting, and my patience for it tanked pretty quickly. We wandered back through the backpackers’ village, down the winding semi-road, finding the stand where we’d bought the mango sticky rice the day before. More mango sticky rice, of course. We sat on a step in front of a nail shop, in semi-shade, eating the mango sticky rice. Hot. Maybe it was 2pm?

We’d had enough of the heat for now, and the idea of lounging by the pool at the hotel for a while seemed appealing. I guess we must have taken a taxi there, though I don’t recall the ride or even where we hailed the taxi from. The plan: yoga followed by swimming pool. We were going to do yoga together. But when we got there, Melissa had been hoping that I would “teach” a class for us. I was not willing to do it. I’ve done it before, at home, and actually enjoyed it. But I was being difficult. It was a combination of feeling strangely “shy” about doing it in a room where someone could have entered, along with just generally being in a jerky mood. That’s probably a topic for the other blog, but the two sentence version of it is that I was reasonably unpleasant to be around for the first several days of the trip. This has happened before when I’ve traveled. I don’t know if it’s, again, the handling of unvoiced anxiety coming out as edgy mood. Or if it’s something else. But I digress. Melissa sat by the pool in the sun, and I did yoga by myself. It was most of a Hatha series, about 50 minutes, with a few exclusions. This was the last time that I did yoga on the trip (just giving you advanced notice, so you don’t think that I was all disciplined and practicing every day – it would be nice to say I was, but I didn’t make time for it). After the yoga, there was the pool. Not warm, considering it is so hot in Bangkok. Perhaps they cool the water? Or perhaps it stays cooler because much of the pool is sheltered from the sun, even though it’s a partly-outdoor pool. It was probably about 75 degrees (that, to me, is cold). I swam some laps, and lamented (privately) the fact that my shoulder (the one that gives me trouble in yoga) gave me trouble swimming, straightaways. That had historically been an issue for me, but I always hope that these things might magically go away. No such luck.

It was becoming early evening, and we must have showered, and lounged around for a bit, before going to dinner. Though there are plenty of amazing street foods to choose from, we wanted to try an actual restaurant with a name that we could read and remember. That, of course, requires the likes of Yelp! or Trip Advisor. We searched somewhere on the internet, and found one named Taling Pling, recommended on a few different sites. Our constraints were that it a) had to be Thai food, b) we didn’t want a touristy location, and c) we didn’t want a hotel restaurant. So, we told the concierge that we’d like a taxi to Taling Pling, and he calls a taxi, and gives the driver directions. It is on Silom Soi 13. What that means is that, if you go down the main street named Silom, there will be a cross street, Soi 13. The restaurant should be on that street. The taxi driver hadn’t heard of the restaurant. He kept repeating the name over and over, as such: “Saling Ping… Saling Ping…” He didn’t speak much English, but he seemed to suggest that if he hadn’t heard of this place, it must not be very good. He asked if we wanted to go to a real restaurant, or something to that effect. At this point, we had already begun learning not to trust the taxi drivers, so we just said “Taling Pling.” We were riding down Silom, after what seemed like driving in circles and going the wrong direction (in fact, at first, we were sure he was taking us the wrong direction, but then it became evident that one way streets mandated looping around to head in the correct direction). He finds Soi 13 and turns down the road. There were a couple of restaurants at the top of the street. But not Taling Pling. He keeps driving, repeating aloud “Saling Ping… Saling Ping… Saling Ping…” as he drives 3 miles per hour on this street which has quickly become a shady looking street with no shops and not a soul to be seen. Both of us are getting suspicious now that we’re being played again. He gets to the end of the street and turns onto a main road, stops on the side, and says “No Saling Ping...” So what do we do now? It’s supposed to be here. He begins backing up on the main road, which would seem unsafe if this weren’t Bangkok, where everything the vehicles do is completely unsafe. Melissa wants an answer from me as to what we’re going to do, with one of the possibilities clearly being to get out and run for our lives, since perhaps this is not a good situation. I am inclined to sit and wait this one out and see what happens, which doesn’t please her, but she complies. He backs up further, and drives back up Soi 13, which seems pointless because there was clearly no Taling Pling or Saling Ping, or anything of the sort. He again drives 3 miles per hour. I’ve secretly decided that all he needs to do is get us back to Silom, and we’ll get out and devise a plan B. There are other restaurants around, for sure. As we arrive back at the top of Soi 13, Melissa looks up and sees a sign on the corner building that reads (in English!) “Taling Pling – new location – Soi 15.” On the one hand, this is great news, because it means we are alright, but it is a little disconcerting that there’s a message in English, because it probably means this is a tourist restaurant, not a place locals would go. He drove us the couple extra blocks to Soi 15, and there it is: what looks like an upscale small shopping mall with fashion clothing shops and other upscale Western stores. And there’s a sign that reads “Taling Pling Plaza #3” or something of that sort. Okay, that’s what it’s gonna be. We walked through the parking lot to the restaurant, which was definitely touristy looking, with a very modern, upscale interior. Seriously, the entire block, shops, restaurant, and all, looked like it was cut out of the Kirkland waterfront and plopped on the corner of a street in Downtown Bangkok. The tables around us were mostly occupied by Westerners. We thought we heard Australian accents, Scottish accents. The good news, if you can believe it, was that the food was excellent. Again. We had some sort of spicy beef dish as an appetizer. Melissa ordered some type of salad (her goal was to order something she’d never had before). I think I had Panang Curry again. I’d made a decision that I wanted to sample every Panang Curry that I could possibly find, so I would return from Thailand an expert in Panang. Whatever that means.

After dinner, we decided to walk for a bit, along Silom Road. After about 5-10 minutes of walking, we stumbled upon a night market on one of the side streets. We weren’t sure what it was, at first, but it was very, very big. So we decided to explore. As we approached, someone called out to us “You want watch ‘ping-pong show’?” And it suddenly became clear that we were at the infamous Patpong market. This is a seedy, bustling market full of deals, scams, and sex clubs. Every corner you turn, something is in your face, whether it be 12-year old exotic dancers, a Thai cover band playing Blondie’s “Heart of Glass" (perfectly, I should note), or an array of “knock-off” goods, in one of several hundred (or thousand) stalls. Walking through the market, one feels a simultaneous sense of overwhelm, curiosity, and disgust. We spent about a half-hour winding our way through the place, before we’d had enough. Maybe it was me that had enough, I’m not sure. At any rate, we left.

The final installment of the evening’s events was the always sketchy process of finding a taxi. First driver we saw refused to use his meter, so we ditched him. I believe we then found a driver who was willing to play by the rules, and made it home, tired.

Thus ends Round 1 of Bangkok. Tomorrow, we wake up and head to the airport (Don Mueang Airport) to fly Air Asia domestic flight to Phuket International Airport. I feel ready to move onward.

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