I don’t… what… I’m not sure I want to know what this might mean
If the title of this post put that awful song in your head, I apologize. My first night in Bangkok was as grating as that song, and the first day was kind of a wash, but things picked up for the latter half of my stay there. Including infuriating political discussions on a street full of escorts.
I arrived late at night and wandered around Khaosan Road, and the next day I moved across town to a quieter hostel. On the way, I stopped at the central train station to buy a ticket out of town, and not only was the ticket I wanted not available, but I had to change transit three times just to get to the train station and then twice to carry on to the new hostel. All with a 30-pound backpack on and the tropical heat making me dizzy. My mood didn’t improve when I checked in at the hostel and learned that the Grand Palace closes at 3:30pm and there’s no way I’d make it in time, so I’d have to try to go the next day, although I’d have to go early in the morning because I needed to leave town by noon so I could get my train out of Ayutthaya in the evening. Ugh, just writing about my poor planning and the inconvenience of the sprawling city is frustrating me all over again!
I decided the solution to my bad mood was ice cream, so I went to the Magnum Bar downtown. I bought an electronics converter for $5 from one of those odds n ends stalls near the train station, the kind of stall probably entirely stocked with stuff that fell off a truck somewhere. But that converter is still working today, keeping my electronics from frying in the changing voltages in new countries, so I’m not asking any questions.
That night, I went out with two women I met at the hostel; H and K* are both teachers in China, in a “small” city about 2 hours west of Beijing. (“Small” in China means only a few million people, of course.) We thought we were going to a ladyboy cabaret, but K’s phone directed us to Soi Cowboy, which is a street that combines all the stereotypes about the seedier side of Thailand: neon everywhere, girls wearing next to nothing idling outside their clubs, lackluster table dancing inside the clubs, old white men at all the clubs, and a general sense that everyone is trying really hard to pretend it’s all normal and not sad.
We walked the length of it–the only tourist women there except for a few middle-aged women we spotted with their husbands–and ended up on the patio of Cowboy, which had a cover band inside instead of dancing girls. H had a lot of uninformed things to say about gender and sex work, which frustrated me to no end. She kept asking about ladyboys: “What are they, women or men? What parts do they have? What are they, really?” Do your homework. Even a cursory glance at a guidebook will clarify for you that ladyboys (who usually refer to themselves in other terms, actually, like “kathoey” or “a second type of woman”) are usually biologically male, but their chosen gender expression is female. Asking what gender someone is “really” is hugely insulting, no matter the culture, but especially in a place like Thailand, where information is readily available on this prominent part of the population, it’s inexcusably ignorant.
Her other favorite topic for the evening was whether the women working here had chosen this life. She’d read all sorts of stories about the “white slave trade” in Southeast Asia, which… what. But she also thinks that some Thai girls, while not kidnapped for the sex slave trade like white girls from America (WHAT), are still forced into the job. If they chose the job, though, she was okay with it. I did a little “choosing from super limited options isn’t a true choice” (my main line when encountering “feminism is about choice” defenders), but mostly I was irritated that she insisted on talking about this while we were sitting right there. If this scene bothers you, that is perfectly understandable, but there’s no reason you have to stay here. As soon as we arrived, we could see it for what it was; babbling about how worried you are for these women as you drink cocktails they bring you is useless and almost insulting.
Anyway, when we steered clear of those conversations, we had a good time, and I was glad to have gone out for one night in Bangkok. (Oh no, I did it again.) The next day I went to the Grand Palace, but by the time I got there, every tour group in Thailand was shoving its way into the gates, and it was too overwhelming. I walked along the outer wall and crossed the street to Wat Pho instead.
Wat Pho (or Po) is a beautiful complex. It contains the largest reclining Buddha in Thailand, covered in gold leaf and housed in a building barely big enough for it. Pillars hold up the roof and split up the view of the buddha, which is too bad for taking in its magnificence in one look, but did give intriguing glimpses as I walked down toward the feet. The soles of the buddha’s feet are covered in intricate mother-of-pearl decorations, which were lovely. The rest of the grounds contain a massage school, a shrine to a seated buddha, and small stupas. There was also a small display on President Obama’s visit to the temple in November 2012, including the gift he brought with him–a candle from Chesapeake Bay. A candle? Really? A candle is what you get someone when you don’t know them well enough to know what to get them. Surely someone on the team could’ve tried a little harder.
After I walked around the wat, I collected my luggage, spent far too long finding a minibus, and got to Ayutthaya for a few hours of sightseeing before headed farther north. A whirlwind trip to Bangkok.
*Usually I use full names in my stories, but since I dwell on the negative parts of my time with H, I thought that imprudent.
The traditional Valentine’s Day gift is chocolate, but who says you have to wait for someone else to present it to you? This week I visited the Magnum Cafe in Bangkok, a restaurant that incorporates Magnum ice cream bars into just about every dish.
I don’t think this ice cream has made it to the US, but they were a big treat on family vacations in England, and every mini mart in Thailand has them. But to devote a whole restaurant to them–brilliant.
It’s kind of like the Cheesecake Factory–overpriced, strange decor, ridiculously long lines, and yet very popular with people from out of town. But hey, my plans for the day hadn’t panned out and “overpriced” in Thailand meant $10 for a meal instead of $3, so I went to check it out.
I managed to skip the 45-minute wait by virtue of being a party of one. I ordered the chocolate-mousse-and-burnt-caramel dish and the mango-and-white-chocolate-smoothie. Just about died of a sugar overdose, but it would’ve been a pleasant way to go. If you’re in the Siam Center in Bangkok and want a different kind of sweet treat, this is the place to go.
I flew into Bangkok from my Chinese New Year celebrations in Singapore and took a train, then a taxi, to my hostel. Or at least an approximation of where my hostel was. The taxi driver refused to go to my actual hostel, just stopped sort of near the road it was on and told me to get out; he doesn’t want to deal with the traffic on my street. Not the most welcoming start to my time in the city.
I stayed one road over from Khaosan Road, an infamous backpacker road. I walked around to take it all in, had a wretched night of sleep as the reggae band downstairs played til 3am (accompanied by kazoo), and then moved to a quieter part of town the next day.
It was worth a look, though: hundreds of people packed into one street; tourists wandering around wide-eyed and eager to spend money; ladies in tribal hats selling wooden toys that chirp like frogs; dozens of stores selling the same Bob Marley singlets and harem pants; food hawkers selling crispy pancakes, fresh fruit shakes, noodles, and bottles of beer; carts trundling through the streets laden with fried insects and accompanying signs saying “photo 10 baht”; pop music from the past three decades pumping out of every storefront; and neon lighting up the hazy tropical air. Masses of people to thread my way through, throngs of people drinking and shouting and laughing and stumbling along the street.
It was an assault on the senses, and a fun place to gawk for forty minutes. But don’t ever ask me to go back.
Today, dearest fellow travelers, a quick look at some things to do and sights to see in Thailand. My many friends who have been there before: what am I missing? Other than the metric ton of street food I plan to eat, of course.
Volunteer at the Elephant Nature Park
Elephant rides are popular throughout Southeast Asia, but the elephants usually work in terrible conditions and it’s generally more ethical not to contribute to their ill treatment by paying for rides. Instead, you can pay about $400 for a week of volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park, in the northern part of Thailand, and contribute to the healing of elephants who used to give tourist rides or do backbreaking work in logging operations. Volunteers muck in as needed, helping feed, bathe, and clean up after the elephants. It sounds like an amazing experience.
Relax on the beaches of the western coast
Phuket is probably the most famous resort town in Thailand, partly for the name that Westerners love to mispronounce (it’s really pronounced Poo-KET) and partly for the gorgeous beaches. But also there are monuments to the two sisters who defended the town from invaders through trickery, which sounds pretty excellent.
Visit the Grand Palace in Bangkok
It’s a giant palace compound, made up of multiple residences, temples, gardens, and courtyards. The royal family has lived elsewhere since 1925, and now it’s open to the public, so you can wander around for entire days, taking in the exquisite architecture and imaging yourself dancing along to the soundtrack of The King and I.