Calibrating to the City of Angels

Bangkok, Thailand

After checking out of CitiChic, we headed to our host's condo, which had us hunting through a long meandering soi and crossing a bridge. The change in scenery gave us perspective on where we'd just come from. Our hotel had been in the middle of a clump of fancy resorts, profoundly congested with thousands of tourists of the grumpy-wealthy-sedentary-American ilk, and particular locals who hung out there putting on acts expressly in hope of ripping off ignorant honeymooners. [It was later mentioned to us that Nana is one of the most debaucherous/loud/tourist-heavy/hooker-heavy areas in Bangkok.]

This new neighborhood, while far from remote, felt more like real life: less flashy, less fantasy-oriented. People went about their own business, indifferent to us for the most part.

Apparently we've been adjusting, too, without consciously trying to do so. Each time we walked down the same route from our hotel to the Nana BTS station, fewer scammers and drivers took notice of us, and the ones that did seemed less convicted and persistent. By the time we headed out for good yesterday morning, maybe one person half-heartedly tried to beckon us for a ride. We took this as a sign that we're looking less overwhelmed and disoriented by the outside observer. [Also, we've gotten far better at crossing the busier streets that look like drunken-NASCAR-rush-hour all the time, which have no traffic lights or stop signs to quell the congested flow of insane drivers.]

Siam Protests

We arrived at Terrance's place, a sixth-floor condo in a nice complex with two large swimming pools. He wasn't at home, but his roommate Jones was--a dude from San Francisco staying in Bangkok for a month during a year-long traveling stint.

Arbitrarily, Alex and I decided to head to the water taxi and see where it took us. We had to transfer at the Siam station, and had heard there were a couple large malls at which we could buy a few things we [a prepaid SIM card, a map, a money belt, a pair of long pants so Alex could visit the temples without causing offense...].

After wandering disoriented around the malls [just when we thought we'd adjusted to the chaos of Bangkok, here we were completely unable to figure out what direction we'd just come from again], we decided to head down to the street, where a huge marketplace was set up that seemed to stretch on for miles--looking down from an overpass, we couldn't see either end of the it.

Walking around in it, buying more strange and amazing street food [my favorite was a dessert thing that looked like a blob of green jello stuck to a pancake, but was probably made of mung bean], and started noticing a lot of the protest activity ramping up. Hundreds of stalls were selling cheap accessories like whistles and headbands garnished with red, white, and blue [colors of the Thai flag], as well as T-shirts all emblazoned with some variation of, "Shutdown Bangkok, Restart Thailand." Uniformed officials directed people through gateways set up throughout the marketplace, and as we sat down to eat a thing of rice-and-so-on, a parade began to stomp through the street. The apocalyptic drums were soon drowned out by whistling--it seemed everyone there had bought cheap whistles and were huffing into them gleefully.

Having read about it in the news, we'd asked Andrew about it over breakfast the other day.

"Oh, they're protesting against having elected officials running Thailand."

"...What? Are you sure that's what they're protesting? Or that's the whole story? That seems pretty counterintuitive."

"As far as I know, yeah."

"Has there been any violence?"

"Only from the terrorists," his son chipped in.


"I don't know, but apparently there's terrorist involvement of some kind."

This didn't satisfy me.

Question one: Figure out what the protests are actually about.

Later, as Alex and I sat watching the parade in Siam, one thing struck us. "Things seem so much more civil. If this happened in the States there'd already be cops and teargas; protestors over there aren't even allowed to use mics to amplify their voices."

"I have a hard time believing these are crazy radicals protesting for an oligarchy. They just seem like college kids and middle-class whoevers."

Kind of put things our own country in perspective.

Water Taxi and Wat Arun

We took a water taxi down the river. Essentially like a subway, but on a very fast boat in the water, with open sides that let in the view and the breeze. At each stop, the boat would slam violently into the dock, which was cushioned by the impact by a row of old tires. On the way we passed dilapidated neighborhoods with trees growing through the buildings, being taken back by nature; extremely swanky resorts on the waterfront; and several magnificent temples.

We got out at the Wat Arun stop, which we'd been told that morning was worth a visit, and took another small boat to get to the other side of the river.

Architecturally, it was stunning--and much larger than I expected it to be. However, I was disappointed in a sense. Upon entering, we walked past several cutouts for tourists to take photos behind and stalls selling kitschy Buddhist trinkets. A few extremely loud European bros skipped gaily by.

" so touristy."

"Well, of course it is. We're tourists, too."

"I know that, but...I don't know. What about the actual Thais who regard their temples as sacred spaces rather than spectacles for the amusement of foreigners? Do they even bother going to these temples--they charge admission at the door. That can't apply to actual Thais...?"

Here we were, having read up on all the proper temple etiquette in advance, all our limbs covered, really concerned about being respectful the company of loud whooping-dancing-yelling Eurobros, and girls in tiny tank tops and short shorts. Maybe it was an off-day, but we saw virtually no Thais other than the monks.

Question two: How relevant are the temples to modern life in Bangkok? How do the Thais here feel about their temples [indifferent, proud, annoyed]?

"Well, I guess we didn't have to worry so much about buying you those pants..." Which was good, because amidst a sea of thousands of clothes vendors, we hadn't found any that were suitable.

We decided to wander off into the side streets, and wound up in a quieter part of the city.

There were ten squillion cats in the place. I hadn't noticed cats before, and wondered if it was a temple thing [later realizing that, no, there are just thirty trillion stray cats on every block of the city—stray cats wandering into shops and sitting on tables while people are eating, indifferent to them].

I took some photos on the way. A few little girls were dancing to some poppy music. They started giggling and waving at me so I took a picture. A grown man noticed this, and asked me if I wanted to pose for a picture with them and I declined, a bit weirded out [especially since I had no idea what relation, if any, this man had to the little girls]. A few minutes later I passed by them again--the girls had relocated to a more visible area, and there was a hat in front of them that the man had placed there--probably an opportunistic move inspired by my own picture-taking a few moments ago. The girls were about five or six, and a couple of them seemed really enthusiastic about dancing for a crowd, but one stood in the middle a bit awkwardly, clearly dancing because she'd been told to.

Not quite sure how to feel about that.

Also. I've been getting eaten alive.

Before heading out on my trip, I was bombarded with advice on how to prevent mosquitoes, and people kept stressing the importance of doing so. Wear Deet, sleep in a net, wear a net, wear long sleeves, don't go out after dark, burn mosquito coils, etc. Blah, blah, blah.

Truth be told, I'm not paranoid about such things back in the states, and I didn't come here in order to become paranoid.

Anyway, no one here seems to be getting bitten, and bug spray doesn't seem to be widely sold at the corner marts and so on; I haven't met anyone who bothered with it, nor with a lot of the other bits of advice [like wearing long sleeves and pants]. Granted, in Bangkok, malaria's not really an issue--but in more remote areas I might start to get a little more worried if I'm still getting bitten as often as I am now [oddly, Alex has been bite-free...and usually mosquitoes never bother me]. And there's Dengue everywhere, Bangkok and otherwise.

Question three: What do people here [or in rural areas, more so] actually do about mosquitoes?

Afterwards, we ran into Jones on our way home, and as we all stood dazedly watching a street vendor make us these strange omelette-crepe-doughy-somethings with condensed milk, he told us about an awesome cheap massage place he'd discovered, and mentioned he'd grabbed a couple business cards, so Alex and I decided to go get worked on. The massage was far better than the one we'd gotten the previous day [and about the same price], but the experience was strange, for several reasons I won't go into...though I found it pretty hilarious when the woman working on me decided to take a phone call during our session, and sat there on the phone for five minutes with her hand on my knee.

This involved walking through more protests--a big camp-out in the street, where people were blowing excitedly into whistles as they listened to speeches made by a man on a huge screen. The whole thing seemed really organized, even mellow, and people seemed to be enjoying themselves. At least the right to peaceful assembly's alive and well somewhere.

Conversation with Terrance

In the evening we met our host, Terrance, and had a brief conversation. He was a tough character to read, but clearly intelligent and inquisitive. Originally from Florida, he's been living here for about a year and a half, teaching music and other things to kids in the area and working as a route-setter at the nearby climbing gym.

I asked him about the protests and he gave me a full spiel on all he'd found out by talking to the local Thais. It was actually really fascinating [and also convinced Alex and I that we might want to get the hell out of Bangkok soon, as cool as it is].

Here's a condensed summary, because I found it extremely interesting:

Basically, there's this guy, Taksin, who used to be the Prime Minister. He was pretty popular for a while, but is currently in exile on charges of corruption and so on. So his sister was elected in his place [Thailand's first female PM], but everyone knows she's basically a puppet that he's acting through from afar--almost a "remote dictator".

Taksin's also been losing more and more favor [since some more rural/conservative people in the North still like him] for other reasons: none of Thailand's rice farmers have been paid in over a year, since he had this idea of hoarding all the country's rice in order to create a global scarcity, and then bring rice back in five years and charge a lot more for it [thinking, mistakenly, that Thailand had a monopoly on the world's rice supply], and now the government is bankrupt and there's just a ton of rice in silos, and a lot of rice farmers who once supported him are on their way to Bangkok to join in the protests.

He also created an incentive program where anyone who purchased a car would be given a 100,000 baht rebate [which also expedited the government's bankruptcy]--as if Bangkok didn't have enough cars already--and this has increased pollution in the city. Even the people who went and bought cars feel that the government really should've been focusing on public transportation--the current BTS is so expensive that only rich people, expats, and tourists use it ["Yeah, just so you guys know--if there's two of you, it's pretty much always a lot cheaper to take a cab, unless you get a day pass and are using the train six or more times that day"].

The protesters, mainly educated middle-class liberals, are against an upcoming election because they know the election's going to be rigged, and won't really be a democratic process. The election's coming up in February, and people are trying to push it back and stop it from happening.

The protests themselves are really peaceful [there are even events coordinators and companies that have been hired out to provide TV screens and sound systems--it's almost like a festival], but recently there've been some third-party terrorist attacks on the protests, the most recent of which killed a street vendor who was just an innocent bystander. The interesting thing is that no one knows who's staging these attacks. Some believe it's the government; some believe it's coming from the protesters themselves in an attempt to garner more public sympathy, and there are other theories as well. In any case, these attacks are suspected to increase as the election approaches.

In addition, Taksin has been trying to convince some of his supporters that the king, genuinely liked by people in general, is a bad guy. Taksin supporters have been wearing red ["Because they don't like the king--except 'everyone likes the king', because that's the law..."], whereas supporters of the king have been wearing yellow [the color of the monarchy].

"Wait, but I thought it was illegal to say anything against the king." Even stepping on or damaging Thai currency [all of which bears a portrait of the king] is considered extremely offensive and can result in jail time.

"It is, but Taksin's rich and powerful enough to get away with it. The crappy thing is that in general the protesters are good people, but their leader is awful. He's just as corrupt; he's buying votes too. A lot of the protesters know this, but they're still for the greater cause and are just glad that there is a leader."

"How do I find out more about this? Can I read about it?"

"Well...the American media is all pro-Taksin, so they paint a one-sided picture; anything you've seen on CNN is pretty biased. On the other hand, the media in Bangkok, both Thai and English, is all written by the protesters, the educated and wealthier urban Thais, so it's also biased. The people here who are against the protests have a good case as well, but they generally aren't communicating through writing--they'll do heated radio broadcasts, in Thai of course."

Our conversation went on to a discussion of tourism in Thailand, and what Alex and I were hoping to do next.

"A lot of people think tourism's been destroying Thailand, and that it won't be a viable tourist destination for much longer. We're falling really far behind in terms of public transit--Vietnam's ahead of us, and Malaysia's way ahead. Our transit really just takes tourists in mind, rather than locals. Burma's behind--but the US is investing a ton of money in Burma."


Alex chipped in merrily, "More poor people to exploit."

Terrance added, "Well, think about it. The US put a bunch of factories in China. China's been growing in power, and so they've been moving the factories to Vietnam. Now Vietnam's coming up, and so they're going to stick the factories in Burma."

"Ew. But that makes sense."

"Well, a lot of things make sense monetarily, at least."

"It seems like a lot of the islands are being overtaken as well. People have been recommending islands for us to go visit, and they'll say things like, 'This island is like what Ko Samui used to be before it got overrun by tourist resorts and got all crowded and polluted--go visit it now, while it's still pristine, because it won't last.' There's this transference of the 'remote island experience' as each one gets over-developed in turn, like they're all catching some contagious disease."

Alex said, "I really want to head down south and see some of the islands, though I guess they're pretty touristy."

"Alex. We're tourists, too. Even if we try and pretend we're not--you've said that yourself."

"I know, but there are different kinds of tourists."

Terrance said, "Well, think of it this way. You can go down south to look at all the tourists, like going to the zoo; or you can go north and be a tourist. The sort of tourists you'll meet up north are probably all going to be backpackers."

Alex laughed, "Like the zoo...sort of 'meta-tourism'."

I asked him about the Full Moon Parties on Ko Pha Ngan, which we'd been hearing a lot of mention of. "They sound like beach raves. And they happen every month?"

"Yeah, pretty much. DJs and drugs. And they happen virtually every night, now--there are Half Moon Parties, Quarter Moon Parties, Three Quarter Moon Parties..."

"So what were they, originally?" I'd assumed there was some rich cultural background behind them, and that their current incarnation was just the result of them being modernized.

"Uh, no...they're basically just big parties where tourists can go do drugs without worrying as much about getting in trouble as they would elsewhere in the country." In Thailand, drug punishments are severe--in general, for many Southeast Asian countries the penalty for possession of certain quantities is mandatory execution, and even being found with drugs in your system [even if you can prove you consumed the drugs outside the country's borders] can land you in jail for a long, long time.

He added, "It's not really my thing. And it's not so much the party atmosphere that alienates me--it's that everyone there seems completely disinterested in the place they're in. There are parts of Bangkok where a lot of the people are just there to get wasted, but it has nothing to do with being in Thailand. They're doing the same stuff they'd be doing in Vegas. There's just a disconnect."

"I hear you. All that being said...we're probably going to go check it out."

"Well, of course. If only to say you did it. It's just one of those things."

The Tourist Drag 

Alex and I have been having a lot of conversations we weren't expecting to have--about what it means to be a tourist, and whether we can really differentiate ourselves from the caricatures of "dumb, entitled, fat Western invaders," or not. Perhaps we couldn't, despite efforts to be conscientious, to support small businesses, to respect cultural norms, to learn the language.

On New Years Eve in a Capitola beach house, our friend Hana had told us [and I'm paraphrasing pretty hard because I was extremely intoxicated at the time], "When I went to Southeast Asia the hardest thing to come to terms with was that I was really just another one of the millions of white backpackers--and there was no way to really separate from them. A lot of them were all trying to separate and count themselves as different, but we were all there as visitors, we weren't really ever going to assimilate to the culture, we were there on different pretenses to begin with--because we're privileged first-worlders who can afford to go travel for fun with our nice backpacks that the locals could never afford."

Those words have been on my mind quite a bit, and I keep going back and forth with what's possible, what we should and shouldn't care about. Is it just delusional to think we need to differentiate ourselves from the other tourists who are propagating cultural degeneration? Is it inevitable that we're contributing to it, too? Or do we have a responsibility, as tourists, to be conscientious of things other tourists ignore? Is there any way to tap in and really be participants, rather than spectators? Or is it self-righteous and ignorant to even try?

In any case, for the next two days we decided to bite the bullet and embrace our tourist-ness.

We went with Jones to Ko San Road [which we'd originally been keen to avoid because we figured it'd be "full of tourists"], to meet up with some of his native Thai friends. It was a lot of fun--it actually reminded me a lot of the French Quarter in New Orleans [particularly Bourbon Street].

We started off with a bucket of rum and coke that had three straws in it so we could suck it down family-style [though I was pretty sure there was not really any rum in it]. A guy was playing the guitar and singing covers [Jack Johnson, the Eagles, standard American fare] who was fantastic; at first we thought he was lip-syncing until we were able to pick out his accent. Vendors came by our table, pointing lasers at us, playing wooden frogs, trying silently to entice us into buying trinkets. Eventually we caved when a lady bearing scorpions came by. None of us were genuinely interested in scorpions ourselves so much as we were trying to convince each other to eat them. Of course, being a bit tipsy already, this led to us each buying one. Pretty sure that's how it always happens.

They weren't as gross as I thought they'd be. Kind of like crunchy dirt. Later when we met up with Ning and Toffee, both of whom grew up in Thailand, they informed me that the silkworms were better [I tried some, and they were--sort of like french fries].

We all got a tower of Chang beer--holy shit those things are huge, and so cheap--the girls laughed at how surprised I was; I suppose that's a standard newcomer reaction. Nearby, a troupe of seven-year old boys were breakdancing before an enthusiastic cell-phone-camera-equipped crowd ["I can't even tell if those kids are good or not, but they sure have enthusiasm"].

Ning mentioned she'd be heading to Chiang Mai on Sunday--Alex and I had been trying to work out the logistics of how best to get there--and offered to pick up tickets for us so we could all go. Perfect.

Afterwards we headed to a wine bar in Nana [the area Alex and I had spent our first couple nights in--decidedly way more obnoxious than Ko San], and I bought an elderflower cocktail that cost more than I'd spent on food in the last two days. We wandered around the ritzy street, past several bar vans, and witnessed two six-year-old girls running by and stealing an absent-minded farang's drinks he'd left on a table, chugging them as they sprinted away. The guy, clearly a scrooge, did not find this hilarious. On a whim, we waited in line to get into a fancy night club that presumably didn't have a cover, in a long line of people who looked like they'd been plucked straight out of L.A., and the guy at the door berated Alex for his cut-off pants and wouldn't let us in ["Sir, we have a strict dress code shorts, especially not shorts that are torn like rags!" and so on].

The next day we headed to JJ [Chatuchak weekend market] with Jones and April, an awesome Chinese girl who'd settled on Bangkok after extensive traveling and was working as a freelance Mandarin teacher. [Back at Terrance's place, we met another Chinese girl with near-perfect English named Papaya who had traveled extensively and worked as a translator.] I'd wandered away from the group to find ice cream while they were waiting on some paella from a large dancing chef, and had gotten completely lost on my way back to find them. The place is huge and completely disorienting--I don't think any description would do it justice. Permanent shopfronts like stores at the mall, but sliced in half, opened onto dense hallways bursting with goods for sale like at the Platinum Fashion Mall, only this place had everything. We walked through aisles of puppies ["They're so cute, it hurts...but this all seems kind of suspicious; they're only selling puppies...what happens when no one buys them?"] and then wound up in what we called the "incense section", and continues roaming for a few hours. I bought a tiny sewing machine [that I'd originally mistaken for a small stapler] for 60 baht [under $2].

Afterwards, we headed to the nearby park and took turns playing Jones' guitar by the pond. A little later, the national anthem came on [which I hadn't witnessed yet]. Everyone in the park stood up and froze. We followed suit, and I tried not to laugh as I looked across the pond at a hundred statues. Ah, nationalism.

Last night, Terrance sent us out to a tucked-away local restaurant that we never would've found on our own--he'd told us in advance what to order [and had written down the names in Thai so that there'd be no confusion]. It was incredible, and the first legitimately spicy meal we've had here [we've since been told that Bangkok food really isn't all that spicy and that we'll have to head north to get our asses blasted off].

So, today is our last day in Bangkok. Heading to Chiang Mai on the 10p.m. bus. A photographer from Israel was going to hire me for a shoot in Bangkok if we could stay another week or so--but even though this place has caught us under its spell and there's definitely much more we could see and do here, we just want to move on. We've gotten comfortable here and would rather get out prematurely, and look forward to coming back in the future, than overstay our enthusiasm.

Besides, it's hard to practice our Thai in a place where most everyone understands some English.


Random Closing Thoughts

Newest addiction: chrysanthemum drinks. Holy shit.

Way too much plastic everywhere. If we buy a bottle of water from 7-eleven [which we often have to do since the tap water isn't potable], they try and send us away with a bag and a straw.

The only people I've seen wearing stereotypical "Thai clothes"--the long flowing skirts and genie pants and embroidered sandals--are foreign white tourists [myself included]. Everyone who lives in Bangkok, on the other hand, dresses in the same jeans and button-downs and sweaters you'd see in New York or wherever else. Ha. I suppose this might change once I get out of the city?

Beer on ice really isn't bad, as blasphemous as that may sound.

Stray dogs here seem a lot smarter than American dogs. They look both ways before crossing the street and compose themselves with a quiet vigilance, never chasing after shit or barking. I always thought dogs were kind of dopey and stupid [in the best way], but maybe they're just coddled into incompetency, like people can be. Nature vs. nurture.

Oh, fun fact: Bangkok has the longest name of any city [for those who didn't know]. It more-or-less translates to: "The city of angels, the great city, the residence of the Emerald Buddha, the impregnable city [unlike Ayutthaya] of God Indra, the grand capital of the world endowed with nine precious gems, the happy city, abounding in an enormous Royal Palace that resembles the heavenly abode where reigns the reincarnated god, a city given by Indra and built by Vishnukarn". Also, Bangkok is only "Bangkok" to English-speakers. The Thai name for it sounds more like runt tep. So. Now you know. [And knowing is half the battle?]