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Siam Sights, Bangkok Nights

From Malaysia I walked into Thailand, once known as Siam, crossroads of Southeast Asia. I promptly investigated some of the amazing limestone island and cave formations of southern Thailand, followed by a dash up to hectic Bangkok where I engaged in diplomatic introductions to local lowlifes and eventually met up with fellow traveler Chris Tarr, who had parted ways with Than not so long before. Together with some local friends of Chris and Than's cousin Owen we engaged in a whirlwind tour of many of Bangkok's offerings, high and low. After sorting out several onward visas I forwent my original plan of taking in Northern Thailand and instead headed overland East towards the mysteries of Indochina.

After walking across that hot, sun-blasted border to the nearest train station I booked a rail trip to Hat Yai, haven of Malaysian weekend tourists out for the more permissive pleasures of Thailand. Not too much in the way of Western tourism in Hat Yai, but it was my first introduction to the wonderful complexities of spicy Thai food in the home country. Thailand was noticeably poorer than Malaysia, but I hardly noticed as my face was typically buried in a pile of spicy Thai food delights.

From Hat Yai I took a bus up the peculiar appendix of Southern Thailand over to Krabi on the western coast. Krabi is a popular tourist destination, one of the launching points along with Phang Nga and Phuket for the peculiar densely vegetated limestonen islands that pepper the waters of the region. These islands are Hollywood favorites, popping up in such movies as The Beach and the Bond classic The Man With the Golden Gun. Here there is a choice -- there are many islands and a variety of tours, so Leonardo fans must launch from Krabi and Connery fans launch from either Phuket or Phang-Nga. The choice was simple for me. After a day of relaxing I hopped onto a bus to Phang-Nga with visions of women painted gold dancing in my head, along with midgets and men with three nipples.

Road travel through this section of Thailand yields a preview of the amazing islands to come. Up from the green flats rise improbable limestone outcrops and pillars, amazing formations encrusted with lush green vegetation and revealing dramatically hued rock faces colored with broad swaths of yellows, oranges, grays, whites, and black stains. These same formations, remnants of limestone mountains, extend out into Phang-Nga Bay where the shoreline crust has subsided below sea level.

The town of Phang-Nga is pretty low key without too many tourists. Undoubtedly this is due to the influence of the tourist vortex of nearby Phuket, the beaches and bars of which provide the center of one of the largest tourist scenes in Thailand. Not being in much of a beach or party mood, I assiduously avoided Phuket, preferring instead to wander around the decidedly local scene of Phang-Nga. Here I arranged for a full day boat tour of the nearby islands of the bay, secretly harboring an ardent desire to glimpse Khao Phing Kan Island and the pillar of Tapu Island, which together have perhaps evermore been dubbed "James Bond Island."

Early the next morning I was off in a jeep, down to the bay. Together with several other pilgrims from around the world we boarded a long-tail boat with an upswept prow. The wooden boat, like all the fishing boats of the region, was powered from behind with an exposed truck engine that drove a propeller mounted on a ten-foot long axle jutting out from the boat. By vectoring this pole the boatman could steer the boat, always launching a rooster-tail of frothy spray up from way behind the boat. (I eagerly thought I remembered James Bond being assaulted by one of these propellers, but I couldn't quite remember? Had he? I guiltily suppressed such blatant Hollywood-based reflections.)

We launched into the river delta, an enormous maze of narrow channels passing through mangrove islands. It was low tide -- the thousands of mangrove roots looked like frozen earthen pom-poms of fireworks descending from a vibrant green sky. We slowly worked through these channels, observing fishermen along the way and villagers wading near the shores with long nets, gathering shrimp. The villages were usually up on stilts, half over the water and half on the shore. Eventually the mangroves gave way as the estuary spread out into the dotted expanse of Phang-Nga Bay, where the bounty of bizarre islands awaited.

The islands, like the formations on the mainland, also sported dense vegetation on the tops and bursting out of every nook and cranny, along with the same beautiful hues of oranges, grays, and blacks on the limestone. Unlike the shorebound formations, however, those of the islands featured amazing caves and erosive formations from the timeless efforts of the sea -- undercut overhangs, with stalactites and other features that made the rock appear to be melting and dripping like slag. There were narrow pillars of rock jutting up out of the sea, often more narrow at the base than at the top, capped with a miniature jungle. We explored hidden bays, entering narrow gaps in an island, which then opened up to reveal enclosed bays with their own beaches and caves. Some caves were large enough to enter with the whole boat, sometimes featuring beaches within the caves. We disembarked a couple of times and explored caves on foot -- one of these caves in particular opened up into a completely enclosed oasis in the middle of an island, surrounded on all sides by cliffs and jungle. All of the caves had impressive formations of stalactites, stalagmites, frozen cascading waterfalls, and dripping columns sometimes thirty or forty feet high.

At one point, in one of the enclosed, hidden bays (Koh Hong), we noted a rainstorm out to sea and approaching fast. We took the boat into a cave for shelter, a cave which opened with low entrances both into the hidden bay as well as out to sea, away from the island. The cave had a high ceiling, perhaps thirty feet high, with a small hole that opened to the sky above. From this hole a brilliant shaft of light descended into the cave, lighting the walls and interior to some degree. Once the heavy rain hit, you could see the raindrops falling through this hole and down the pillar of light. Mesmerizing.

The rain did not last long. We soon continued our exploration of the islands. Up until this point we had been pretty successful in avoiding the hordes of tourists that spill out of Phuket for similar, but larger-scale, tours. This soon changed as we visited a so-called "traditional Muslim fishing village" completely on stilts over the water. Well, there was a detectable village there, somewhere, but the boats dump you off on a dock that only connects to restaurants and souvenir shops -- there was no access to the actual village, at least by walking. What a tourist trap. We didn't stay long. Soon we were back on the water, headed for the famous James Bond Island, secret headquarters of the villain Scaramanga.

Talk about a travesty of tourism. JBI is a nightmare, spilling over with boats and tourists trying to elbow past some twenty hawker stalls and a smelly public toilet. Everyone wants a piece of that island; I was no exception. I put forth a mighty struggle to put my mental filters in place and admire the island beneath the distractions. It is a beautiful place, a small beach curving around a tiny bay. In this bay lies the mighty pillar of Tapu Island, one of the striking columns, which I described earlier. In The Man With the Golden Gun, it is from this small island outcrop which the secret phallic weapon is to be launched. It is by far the best view, since by gazing out into the bay you put the mayhem of tourism behind you.

I was simultaneously thrilled and disgusted. I mean, I suppose I expected as much, but it never ceases to shock me when I'm faced with major tourist circuses. What is it about movie spots that so captivate the world? It's not just us, there were many tourists from all over Asia and Europe, all fascinated with Scaramanga's Lair. I finally decided that it must have something to do with the psychology of humanity that deals with mythology, gods, and heroes. These days we don't seem to have a mystical mythology to help define our world, so I think all that extra energy is spent constructing a new, superfluous mythology through the medium of mass media, movies in particular. Unlike in the old days, where it was unlikely that you would personally visit a famous rock in Hades or some other famous fulcrum of mythology, these days our new mythology leaps right out of the tale into our reality. We can actually visit the abodes of our heroes! Or so it seems. At the very least, it feeds the appetite for set lore -- I myself have confessed to such many times, just on this trip alone. You see it happening with Phi Phi Le Island, made famous in The Beach. Over in Cambodia, Ankor Wat received a big boost recently by appearing in Tomb Raider. And the double-edged sword of tourism has the unfortunate tendency to ruin that which it covets. Technically, JBI is part of a national park -- not that you could tell, except for a sad little neglected sign near the concrete fixtures of the public toilet that state all the rules for protecting the environment by low-impact best practices. The buck wins, especially in the Third World.

So it was with cursory reflection and a dash of shame that I excitedly and enthusiastically took photos of myself with Tapu in the background and a shit-eating grin on my face. James Bond Island! Look! I'm on Scaramanga's secret fortress! Whoo-hoo! Very cool.

We soon headed back to the mangrove estuary, changed now due to high tide. Along the way we noted some 3000 year old petroglyphs on some of the undercut walls of one limestone island, as well as another enormous cave through which we boated and watched swallows darting around hundreds of feet above our heads along the roof of the cave.

After Phang-Nga I hopped on a bus over to the west coast and boarded a northbound night train for fabled Bangkok with the intention of securing onward visas for several other countries on my itinerary. Visa acquisition can be a time-consuming process, so I ended up staying in Bangkok for longer than I initially planned.

Bangkok is urban chaos. It is a thriving, modern city on top of terrible traffic and pollution coursing through temples, markets, shopping districts, slums, canals, bazaars, and skyscrapers. Just about anything can be found in Bangkok, cultural endeavors, cultural boondoggles, and delights both high and low. I proceeded directly to the latest tourist ghetto along Kao San Road where there were so many travelers plying the streets it barely feels like you are in Thailand due to all the catering to Western tastes. It was early in the morning; hiding from the growing heat I ensconced myself in a coffee shop and watched the various bohemians and freaks from the Asian travel circuit wander up and down Kao San. Priceless entertainment for any serious people-watcher. As for my part, I started watching pirated movies in the restaurants after taking a couple of long walks around the areas surrounding Kao San, where the Thais still go about their business and day-to-day life in their neighborhoods.

That night I got a more proper introduction to the flip-side of how locals interact with tourists -- after a significant disagreement with a "female" pickpocket, during which I forcibly reacquired my wallet, I was rudely introduced to two flying shoes from the thief in question, earning a lump on the back of the head and a scary, evil-looking black eye.

Rather embarrassed and demoralized by my encounter with the welcoming committee, I initiated my visa quest and promptly started haunting the various shopping districts which featured airconditioning (ahhh! modern invention which we take for granted), net access, and modern theaters.

Eventually trouble came to town. Chris Tarr, of Chris and Than travel fame, dropped down from Chang Mai in the north. In no time flat we hooked up at a café on Kao San and caught up on all the times. Chris looked good, lean and tan; travel had treated him well. Together we began terrorizing Bangkok.

We hit several of the pubs and bars in the area, usually hanging out with some of the local acquaintances of the highly sociable Chris. Along with his friend Kay we went to visit the sprawling and vibrant weekend market on the north side of the town, bemused by the multitude of offerings: clothing, food, pet fish, turtles, pet animals such as dogs, cats, squirrels, just about anything and everything. I think I was most fascinated with the fish in the multitude of aquariums, a variety of exotic fish with which I was completely unfamiliar. We wandered randomly about the city as well, just exploring streets.

Here's the thing with streets in big cities in Thailand. You get these strange clustering of merchant regions, where nearly every shop on a particular street offers the exact same things. So you might have a street where every shop sells the same spices, or every shop sells images of the Buddha, or every shop is a textile shop, perhaps one street with linen and another with silks. Well, in Bangkok at least, this gets taken to extremes and has some peculiar manifestations. There is no such thing as a "one stop shop" sort of mentality there. It's all about the districts. So, for example, we saw streets crammed only with shops that dealt exclusively in marching band paraphernalia and trophies. One street where Chris was looking for a guitar had dozens of shops that all dealt in guitars, keyboards, drums, sewing machines, and power tools. Every third or fourth shop would be a shop that dealt only with army surplus gear and camping supplies, sort of an "overlapping" district where the specialty shops interleave with one another. How do such bizarre combinations of goods come to be in these shops? I mean, why doesn't one of these guitar / keyboard / drum / sewing machine / power tool shops someday add, say, toasters to its line of products? Simple. Nobody would buy them, because they'd be on that street to buy a guitar, keyboard, drum, sewing machine, or a power tool. If they wanted a toaster they'd go over to the egg-beater, computer, toaster, and theatrical makeup street. Jeez, get with the program!

Actually, I have a theory as to how it happens. I think it's a rapid crystallization process that occurs once a new product hits the market for the first time. Simultaneously, several of these specialty shops on different streets might all start offering the brand new widget, say digital barometers, and at some point the shopping hordes will settle on a particular shop on a particular street as the source of digital barometers. At that point, all of that shop's neighbors must begin stocking digital barometers or they simply cannot compete in what is now also the digital barometer district -- in order to effectively compete they must look identical to the dozens of shops up and down the street around them. See?

I rubbed elbows with these shopping hordes -- with products scattered all over the city, there's a lot of transport going on. There are several methods: taxis, tuk-tuks, buses, rapid transit rail, and boats. I mastered them all.

Taxis, the most expensive option, are pretty self explanatory. Generally I avoided these unless I wanted to avoid the hassle of the other modes of transport.

The mass transit train was a wonderful way to get around as well, assuming you were lucky enough that the currently limited deployment covers the area of interest -- generally I would use this in combination with one of the other options.

Buses are by far the most popular, and cheapest, ways of getting around. You can forget it, as a tourist, unless you are armed with a bus map that details the route numbers all over the city -- it is rarely a straight shot to where you want to go and often involves switching buses at the appropriate moments. They are sort of chaotic scenes, buses, with people piling on and off while the bus rarely stops moving completely at stops. There is a keen-eyed ticket elf that patrols each bus, who somehow tracks who has and has not paid in the churning crowd of passengers -- not only that, they know how far each person has paid to go, since the price varies according to distance. The ticket elves all carry this hollow, metal cylinder around a foot long and maybe two inches wide. In this cylinder are the coils of tickets (depending on distance) that are dispensed to customers, as well as a chamber in which the cash is stashed. They walk around shaking that metal cylinder at people, making the change rattle. Everyone eventually gets a visit from the elf, loudly shaking that cylinder -- feed the cylinder! Must feed the cylinder!

That boats are a transit option might seem surprising. Bangkok is crisscrossed with all sorts of canals, once being termed the "Venice of Southeast Asia", though these canals are not used for transport as much as they once were. A few of the canals, plus the main river, still use boats for transport. I hopped on one of these canal boats once when I stumbled across one, judging by my bus map that it must lead to the general vicinity of my destination. Standing on the dock of the narrow canal, I was somewhat intimidated when this long, roaringly loud boat ominously came speeding around a bend up to the dock, causing all sorts of wakes and barely stopping as people clamber aboard, sitting perhaps four abreast on wooden slats that cross horizontally down in the hull of the boat. Once people are more or less aboard, they raise sheets of plastic along each side to keep the murk of the canal from splashing on the passengers as the boat careens through and around all sorts of sharp-edged obstacles in the canal, which varies from perhaps thirty feet wide to a harrowing seven feet wide in some places. The variable width of the canal and the various obstacles encountered in no way affect the breakneck speed of the boat. Soon enough, a sub-variety of the ticket elf comes rattling one of those metal cylinders for payment (feed it! must feed it!), somehow navigating over benches or shuffling around the outside edge of the boat as it zig-zags through the canal. My attention was divided between anxoiusly judging the competence of the insane driver and worrying that the ticket elf would get flung overboard. At one point, on queue, the struts supporting the roof all folded backwards, lowering the roof so all the passengers had to duck way down in their seats as the boat, never missing a beat, zoomed under an arched bridge with perhaps four feet of total clearance above the water and maybe a mere foot above our ducked heads. Once the bridge was cleared the roof popped right back up and all the passengers sat back up in their seats nonchalantly. Since the plastic sheet splash-guards were raised along the sides, I only caught fleeting glimpses of landmarks; finally, on a guess and a lark, I judged that I must be close to my destination. As the boat slowed, never completely stopping, next to a dock I stumbled out and climbed up the stairs from the canal on unsteady legs. Much to my relief, I had guessed correctly and was right on the money. For a random experiment, that boat ride was much more than I'd bargained for.

Last, but not possibly least of the transit options, are the ubiquitous tuk-tuk drivers. There are seemingly thousands of these crazy sons of bitches terrorizing the city. A tuk-tuk, named after the noise the LP-powered engine makes, is a three-wheeled contraption, decked out with brightly colored vinyl and chrome, where the driver sits astride up front, legs to either side of the seat with a small windshield. The roof stretches back to the rear, where two, maybe three if everyone is small, people can sit side by side over the rear axle, which sports two wheels. These things aren't slow, gentle, pliant beasts of the roads. They zoom back and forth through traffic, typically outpacing cars and taxis, as the drivers alternate stomping on the gas and the brakes in a whirlwind path, somtimes even taking you to your destination. Actually taking passengers to requested destinations only seems to be a side hobby for these guys. Seemingly every tuk-tuk driver out there will insist on offering to take you to the best (naturally) places for women, drugs, or any thing else that even vaguely seems like it might be on the black market. They almost seem puzzled and hurt when they finally realize that you merely wish to pay them to take your requested destination. Naturally, extracting the right fare from these guys is a compulsory and extended bargaining ritual. As obnoxious as these guys are, you can't help but love their surreal and ridiculous presence on the streets. Someday I want to get a Bangkok tuk-tuk just for grins. I have since seen all sorts of three-wheeled auto-rickshaws, but the Bangkok tuk-tuks easily take the cake.

While adventuring in Bangkok, Chris and I had contacted Than's cousin Owen, who has been living in Bangkok for some three years. Furthering our adventures and aiming to see Bangkok in all of its glory, both sublime and sordid, we met Owen for beers and convinced him to take us on the Red Light Tour. Bangkok, as you may well know, is famous for its sex industry, though not so much these days as in the past. We checked out strip clubs in several areas, some more favored by expats and others more favored by tourists. On the expat side of things we visited the more relaxed Soi Cowboy, Nana Plaza, and perhaps the most amusingly named Clinton Plaza. At the end of the night we finally visited the famed Patpong district -- this last is where you find most of the tourist trade and outlandish sex acts (not as in coitus) that you might have heard exist in Bangkok. Despite the nature of our excursion, it was a pretty tame night overall.

Thailand is perhaps more famed for it's boxing. I had been wanting to see a Thai boxing match for a long time. Later in the week Chris and I met up with Owen again and attended a night of boxing. There were eight or so matches in the arena that night, of which we saw five. As you enter the arena, after having bought your ticket, you are handed a bit of cash in order to encourage betting! Each match begins with a prolonged period of jangly music where each boxer, always one in red shorts and the other in blue, sort of dance and stretch around the ring, kneeling, hopping, praying, and going through some sort of traditional (for luck) ritual for several minutes. Soon, the music continuing all throughout, the match starts and for the first two rounds of the five round match there is boxing but not too much really going on in the stands. Thai boxing involves strikes with the hands, plus blows with the legs, especially with the knees to the ribs in close quarters. After the second round ends, the crowd goes nuts, frantically waving and signaling with their hands to a cadre of bookies who ply the walkway in front of the stands, taking and noting bets, tracking the odds. This activity only intensifies during the third and fourth rounds, with loud oohs and aahs coming from the observers as one boxer scores a hit on the other. The noise from the crowd seems to die down a bit in the fifth round as people are resigned to their fates -- unless it is a particularly close match and everyone is yelling. I never could figure out the system of hand signals, even though we had someone attempt to explain it to us. The boxing was fascinating, though to be sure I was at least as fascinated watching the crowds in the stands.

Eventually my visit to Bangkok began to wind down. My visas had been acquired and Chris moved on, headed down to Malaysia and onward to Australia and New Zealand. On one of the last nights there, I had an unexpected surprise. Following a random shout of my name near Kao San, I was delighted to find my Australian friends Leon and Laura whom I had met all the way back in Bellingen, Australia, playing didgeridoos around a fire one night. It was great to see them as we talked long into the night.

My plans had changed. I had stayed longer in Bangkok than originally planned, plus I had decided to go overland through Cambodia on the way to Vietnam, since I had heard so many good things about it. In order to accommodate these plans I abandoned my plans to travel in the north of Thailand, trekking among the hill tribes. Perhaps someday I will.

Despite my rude introduction, I enjoyed Bangkok immensely. A vibrant city, no doubt with a vibrant future. Now I just have to go back and listen more carefully to that "One Night in Bangkok" song from the Chess soundtrack and see if it now has additional resonance for me.

I finally boarded a bus one morning. Despite a small delay incurred by running over a guy on a motorcycle at the end of Kao San road as he tried to cut on the inside of the bus as we were turning a corner (he was okay, just mildly scraped, the crazy nut) we were soon off through the rice fields of Thailand, on our way to the mysteries of Cambodia. A chaotic place, this border is one of the few land borders in the world where lefthand roads directly connect to righthand roads. Not that it matters -- since lanes are fairly arbitrary in practice, in both countries, formal rules are largely insignificant and the border crossing is a dusty, swarming cacaphony of freight trucks, pickups, rickshaws, donkeys, shuffling pedestrians, and maimed beggars.

Cambodia, there I was.

Excerpt from the Beer Lover's Almanac: Thailand is, along with most of Southeast Asia, predictably dominated by lagers of dubious quality, typically too sweet and too often revealing the twang of nasty preservatives such as formaldehyde. Beer Chang is perhaps the cheapest option; more palatably is Singh, which strives to present itself as more of a premium beer. And of course there are the ever present Tiger, San Miguel, etc. But miracles never cease! Much to my delight, I found examples of dark lagers in Thailand. In particular, in Southern Thailand, I discovered Black Tiger dark lager -- steeling myself for a cloyingly sweet sugar bomb, I insouciantly sipped the beer, hoping by chance to sneak up on a decent flavor. Success! The lager was crisp, with a perfect roasty balance, distinctly lacking all of the terrible hallmarks of most Asian lagers! Wonderful. Later, in Bangkok, I encountered Black Beer, by the same brewery -- it, too, was pretty good but edged more into that sweet zone which I so despise. So here's to Black Tiger, the first acceptable lager I have encountered in all of Asia.

Till next time, where I will detail adventures in Indochina,
Matt