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Ben in Japan...and Thailand (Part 1 of 3)

Saturday, January 07, 2006
It's been two weeks and now I'm so overloaded with pictures and stories that I'm going to have to break this up into three different sections. Here goes part 1.


Liz and I got to Bangkok on the evening of the 21st, checked in at the New Siam II guest house, put down our stuff and - with no idea where we were, what we were going to do, or how we were going to do it - set out into the street.

The amount of life in Bangkok is astounding. It may just be the contrast from where I live now, but walking out into that new street was thrilling. Everywhere I looked, people were making and selling food. In a couple blocks we passed probably seven or eight carts on the street, some with tables, some with stools, some with no place to sit, and each was making something different. A lady was selling fresh pineapple and watermelon next to a man grilling whole fish, and chicken livers over an open fire. A woman shaved green papaya into plastic bags, where she mixed in shrimp, chili, and a sweet sauce and made delicious spicy papaya salad. Noodles, soups, whole chickens, grilled bananas, fresh seafood of all sorts, all of it was right there. We walked past some little restaurants with lines of young Thais waiting for some sort of food. We came to a canal and walked along it to a park on the river, where we found break dancers, people relaxing, and an evening aerobics class. three wheelbarrows carried a huge sound system and two giant speakers, a young woman stood on some steps with a headset microphone, and dance music blared over her instructions and maybe fifty people did their aerobics.

An old fort served as a backdrop for the class.

We sat a while and watched, the roar and exhaust of the road muffled, the river behind us full of boats. After a time we walked and picked a restaurant at random and sat down. The meal was served in little plastic bowls, but excellent, fresh spicy curries with jasmine rice. We headed back and noticed a sign at our hotel expressly forbidding taking prostitutes in the elevators. With that, we ended the first day in Bangkok.

While traveling, I did some thinking about my photography, and travel photography in general. I spent a lot of time on this trip regretting not taking pictures I should have taken, going over the pictures I had taken and realizing that I had messed up the one shot I had taken of something, or just wishing I could go back to a place when the light was different, the weather was better, or just to take a picture over again. It seems that when on vacation, going from one place to the next and not really settling down, I can't ever really take all the pictures I want to. I think of Bangkok, and I think of the pictures I didn't take, and I wonder why I didn't take them. It makes sense, I suppose. I still go out on my island in Japan and take pictures of things I have been seeing every day, and it's coming up on six months that I've been here. I couldn't possibly hope to get Bangkok with the kind of completeness that I have been approaching here (in my mind, at least). I guess what I'm saying is that these pictures feel incomplete to me. Some of them seem a little sloppy, like I didn't have enough time to find the right composition or situation, and they don't all have the completeness that a good photo should have. They feel like a glimpse here, and a glimpse there, but I don't think they work to tell a whole story, and that's frustrating for me. I guess I'll just have to go back and get the ones that got away.

One picture out of forty so far, and I'm on five paragraphs. If you just want to skip the reading and look at the pictures, I'll understand.

On the next morning, we woke up, and looked out the window:

I'm not actually going to go to that level of inane detail, but I did like the view out the window. Dramatic it was not, and the pile of bird shit was enormous, but there was something.

We got out of the hotel pretty early and found our way to the Royal Palace. There's a lot of back-story here, and I'll get into some of it later, but the bottom line is Thailand has a king, and they love him a lot, and the palace is a huge complex of temples, political buildings, and a royal residence.

Also: a showy display of guns at the front.

It was cloudy most of the time we were in Bangkok. Apparently there was some Typhoon in Vietnam that was throwing clouds over Thailand, and so the pictures feel a little flat, a little grey.

The temples and buildings are in a tremendous variety of gaudy styles. There's a lot of gold, a lot of mosaics, a lot of shiny things and the "best" temples are generally the ones with the most bling. Like this one, that has an entire giant tower made of gold tiles.

Did I mention there was a lot of gold?

Also, there was a lot of gold.

The entire base of this temple is surrounded by these sculptures, all in a pose of holding the thing up. The effect of seeing them all together is pretty cool. Again, the pictures I wish I had taken.

The temples are all relatively recent, maybe a few hundred years at most, and so you don't get the impression you're looking at some towering example of timeless architecture that has stood exactly as it does now forever. Liz and I decided the talks with the builders must have sounded something like this: "Yeah, so we want like, a huge temple. It's going to have maybe nine bazillion tiles? Is that cool? Can they be gold? How about mirror tiles, can we do that? Great. Also, we want lots of colors. How many colors do you have? Fifty? Yes, we want all of them all over the place. And lots of gold, don't forget."

Case and point.

I really liked the way they end their roofs. I don't know if it's a stylized bird or face or what, but it's a nice elegant shape, almost art deco looking, and they are everywhere. Well done, Thailand.

At some points, the place just felt like Disneyland. The way it works (as far as I can tell) is that if the King wants something, they make it. So in the middle of the Thai temples is a giant faux French style building, which serves some obscure purpose. The combined effect is that one has trouble taking it all seriously.

The royal complex is full of temples, shrines, monuments, and in one corner, enormous murals depicting a Thai version of the Ramayana. The murals themselves were nice enough, gold leaf and fine painting, but my favorite part was a small section that was roped off for restoration. A group of people stood at these walls and traced every line, every shape, almost every brush stroke, using just a pencil and a nice piece of vellum. It was one of those unfathomably immense tasks, and it was neat to watch for a few minutes. Am I going to leave Japan and go trace wall painting? No. Not today, anyway.

On the way out, it was as if the designer had built twenty extra towers that they couldn't find a use for, so he stuck them all together on a little patio.

Notice the little flowers tile patterns. Something about these looked very craft-ish to me.

Near the exit, in front of the giant faux French building, there is a guard. He wears a spotless white uniform and he holds an unloaded M16 rifle. He stares into the distance with an impressive detachment, and hundreds and hundreds of people pose for pictures with him. I just felt bad for the guy.

I wonder what he thinks about when he gets this shift. When someone stands next to him and makes a silly face, and the video cameras are on, what is he thinking? Is he playing chess in his head? Is he thinking about his girlfriend? King and Country? Is he meditating? I wonder if the guards have come up for a name for this shift. What could they call it?

The rest of the day was spent doing I don't know what. Judging by how most days went, we probably had a delicious lunch, walked on some narrow streets, found a bench where we sat and watched people go by while reading the guidebook and getting used to not wearing 25 layers of clothes to stay warm. It's not terribly photogenic, but it's very relaxing.

One of the good benches was by the river, actually right near where the aerobics class was. Sitting by the river, I watched boats go by, and then I saw one of these:

They call them Longtail Boats, and they are basically a long narrow boat, maybe three feet wide, made of light wood with a giant engine strapped to the back. The shaft out of the back has a propeller on the end, and the driver just holds onto a metal pipe and points the propeller left and right, up and down. With the propeller on the shaft, the boat can go into extremely shallow water, at extremely high speeds. They sound like a huge truck going full speed on the highway, they smell worse, and they go flying up and down the river. I never took one, something I am now regretting a little bit. Next time.

Now that I think about it, the first time I saw one of these boats going down the river at full speed my eyes lit up as I watched it careen between two ferries, the propeller spinning out of the water for a second as the boat jumped across a wake, and if I remember correctly, Liz's words were "We are not taking one of those." It might sound like Liz is a party pooper, but she had our best interests at heart, and when I want to take my life into my own hands, I should probably do it alone.

I don't know engines, but that one is pretty big. Also it appears to have two tires, a coffee can, a blue flag, and a boat strapped to it.

Though we didn't take a Longtail, we did roll the dice and jump on the ferry. I say ferry, but ferry sound so safe. We had long fast boats that would pull up to a tiny floating dock, a guy would leap off and clamber up an old tire with a rope around his shoulder before he was crushed, he would throw the rope over a piling, the boat would rev it's engines and pull against the dock, come crashing up against the dock, everyone would make a mad dash to jump on and off the boat while it moved back and forth, towards and away from the dock, the gap between the boat and the dock opening and closing, and then the next thing you knew, you were off, heading to the next dock. I didn't take pictures, because I was fearing for my life and my lower extremities.

The ferry.

A bit more on transportation: Tuk-tuks. A Tuk-tuk is a motorcycle taxi, basically a motorcycle engine and transmission built into a light metal frame, with three wheels, room for two in the back, and a ride that is described in Lonely Planet Thailand as close as you can come to an extreme sport in Bangkok. The ride is more or less extreme depending on the driver, but at one point we had a guy who drove us across Bangkok, tires squealing in every turn, swerving in front of buses and cars, popping a wheelie when he accelerated from a stop, locking the tires when coming to a red light, making huge backfires as he'd come over small hills, and grinning like a madman the whole time. Other times it was more like a taxi, only more dangerous and exciting.

This guy won the Pimp My Tuk-tuk award. Where most had nothing, he had a flat screen TV, a big stereo, a huge amplifier, and all manner of LED light systems that went off when he hit the brakes (rarely).

This guy just looked like Tom Waits, wore a black hat and a long-sleeved tight black shirt, and put the thing up on two wheels around turns. Yes, that's a bus bearing down on us on the right.

Just a few pictures from wandering around Bangkok's Chinatown.

I wonder if Thailand has such a thing as fire marshals? At one point I looked up and saw that the wires were hanging in a hammock of older wires, which were hanging from a knotted handkerchief.

Thailand loves the king. The in-flight magazine on the way to Thailand had an article about His Majesty's sporting exploits (lost an eye racing cars, won a sailing cup, can out-shoot even army generals, is a killer tennis player, a sporting golfer, and many more), it mentioned his age ("a young and spry 78"), and went on to sing his praises for three full pages. I didn't take it with me, and I regret that. At the movies, everyone has to stand for the National Anthem/montage of inspirational images of the king.

Another regret: I didn't come home with a larger than life size image of the king.

Speaking of the king and movies, after a couple days of crazy busy markets and food on the street, we decided to check out Siam Square, part of the "new" Bangkok, full of giant malls, elevated trains, huge movie theaters, and food courts the size of a small town. The funniest part about Siam Square is the Skytrain, the aforementioned elevated train. The train has two levels, a lower walking concourse, and the tracks, which are above the concourse. The whole thing is maybe three stories up, and you can walk from one store to another, to hotels, to restaurants, all without ever touching the street. The street is chaotic and dirty, and when you walk from one air-conditioned shopping center to another without going down to the chaos of the street, it feels like some sort of sci-fi city, where the upper streets are populated only by the rich and affluent who go about their pointless lives while the poor and mutated live in the under-city, the ruins of centuries of decadence and excess buried under mountains of filth.

In reality, it's not that dramatic, but for a moment, stories I have read and games I have played came to mind when I stepped onto the clean smooth Skytrain concourse and the smell of exhaust and sound of horns, shouting vendors and construction all quieted a bit.

No centuries of decadence down below, but the Skytrain is pretty neat.

And the traffic. So much traffic.

And the newest mega-mall. The basement is an aquarium, the top floor is still under construction, and...

If you need a Lamborghini, Ferrari, BMW, or Aston Martin, you can get them on floor 3.

The food court. Funny story about this, we came here on the 23rd and saw a movie, and the fish tank was as so. We came back on the 31st during an overnight layover in Bangkok, and the same tank was half empty and devoid of fish. The whole thing had opened on December 18th, so it seems they were having some sustainability problems.

At the much less fancy and much more crazy mall, the monks buy cell phones. Later, they smoke cigarettes and call people while walking down the street.

On the 24th, we went to The Golden Mount. Actually what they should call it is "The Pale Yellow Giant Concrete Building" but still, we went. The mount is a temple built on top of a hill that was a collapsed temple built on top of a hill. Then they covered the whole thing in concrete, so as to prevent re-collapse.

A path leads around, turning into a staircase which leads to the top. As you go around, you pass memorials to people, plaques in the wall, often with little black and white pictures. There are hundreds of these all around, and together the effect is impressive.

Little shrines line the stairs all the way up.

Bigger shrines too. I liked how you could see where the gold leaf had been touched up on this Buddha image.

At the top there's a big tower and a view of the city. Look at how many temples there are along the horizon. Crazy.

Also, look at the people praying to me. How considerate of them!

The last day in Bangkok, no great stories behind this picture, just an image I liked. More often than not, alleyways were places to do laundry, dishes, or food preparation.

And so we were sent off to the island of Koh Chang with a dire warning written on the door of the hotel.