From the archives, just 'cuz, some funky fabulous favorite fruits from our time in Southeast Asia...
For more great foodie posts, be sure to visit Wanderlust & Lipstick's weekly WanderFood Wednesday blog carnival!
From the archives, just 'cuz, some funky fabulous favorite fruits from our time in Southeast Asia...
For more great foodie posts, be sure to visit Wanderlust & Lipstick's weekly WanderFood Wednesday blog carnival!
Oktapodi seems to be in a cruising state of mind lately, so here are a few boat-related images to take us into the weekend...
For more fabulous travel snaps, check out Delicious Baby's Photo Friday blog carnival.
This year Loy Krathong, the Thai festival to honor the goddess of water, falls on November 21. So I thought I'd dedicate today's Photo Friday to a few snaps from our 2008 trip to Southeast Asia, where we were able to experience Loy Krathong in the Bangkok suburb of Thonburi. We got to make our own krathongs, and had a ball walking around the streets of Thonburi taking in the sights, smells, and sounds.
For more fabulous travel photos, check out Delicious Baby's Photo Friday.
About an hour outside Bangkok is a beautiful gold and white temple with a mouthful of a name. (Happily, it's also known simply as Wat Hong.) We were fortunate to be taken there during our visit last November. It was a lovely break from the tourist throngs at the major sites in Bangkok, and in fact we seemed to be the only non-locals in the place. In addition to enjoying the splendid artistry inside and outside the temple, we got an extra treat: that day was graduation ceremony for the latest crop of monks. Zoe explained that almost all young men in Thailand become monks for a month or two. It's almost like Boy Scouts; monks in training learn physical and spiritual discipline, as a preparation for continuing on to adulthood.
For more great travel photos, check out Delicious Baby's Photo Friday.
It's happening at a glacial pace, but I *am* making some progress in uploading pics and stories to this site. I recently reached a milestone: finally got all the Bangkok stuff posted! Those of you who are email subscribers will already be aware of this, as you've been getting handy little notices when a new post goes up. But for the rest of you ::cough:slackers:: here's a quick guide to what's been posted lately:
* all Bangkok photos are here
* they're also broken down into more manageable categories such as
- Grand Palace and Wat Pho
- Loy Krathong
- Samut Prakan
- the rest of Bangkok, including pics from Ma Tuk's house, several markets, and lots of food!
* oh, and Singapore pics are up too
* all Bangkok posts in one big-ass chunk
* First taste of Bangkok
* Chachoengsao and a river cruise
* Happy Loy Krathong!
* Not-so-divine comedy
* Party time, excellent!
* Cul-cha, and a bit of seedy underbelly
* Both ends of the spectrum in Samut Prakan
* all Singpore blog posts are here
So have a read, and let us know what you think! We love reading your comments and questions. And thanks to the eagle-eyed folks who have pointed out incorrect links and other bugs. This QA is much appreciated, and helps us know that someone's actually paying attention to what we write here. ;)
We've managed to pack a lot into our second week! Here's a quick recap of what we've been up to during week two: the major themes include friends, food, and massage in Thailand, and Chinese temples and lots more food in Penang. We are gonna be like 400lbs each by the time this trip is over!
We managed to grab a ridiculously early-morning flight out of BKK -- the upside was that there was absolutely no sign of the hideous soul-numbing Bangkok traffic! -- and we're now in Penang, Malaysia. Since internet access is pretty cheap and abundant around here, we may have a bit more time to post and catch up on previous posts. Pics, too, as there are SOOOOOOO many good ones from our time in Thailand.
In the meantime, we already miss our comfy Bangkok oasis at Ma Tuk's. Upon arriving in Penang, we stopped at the guesthouse that had been arranged for us by a local couchsurfer. (We'd originally planned to surf with him, but I guess he doesn't have space this week.) The place, shall we say, was a little rough around the edges. Particularly after our week in the lap of luxury! So we picked another place around the corner. The Hotel Hong Ping is still sorta in the budget range at roughly $20 a night, but feels much safer and comfier. We're in the main hub of Georgetown, the primary city on Pulau Pinang (Penang Island) and there are tons of restaurants, pubs, and of course internet cafes! We'll probably do a bit of siteseeing this afternoon and will try to book a scuba daytrip to nearby Pulau Payar in the next day or two.
Bangkok, in a nutshell, was awesome. The legendary Thai hospitality was in full swing, as Zoe's family showed us an amazing time. We saw temples, gardens, wildlife... to say nothing of all the food. Traditional Thai meals, Japanese Sukiyaki, Vietnamese, fresh seafood, amazing fruits and satay and other snacks... Mark and I suspect they were trying to fatten us up like two Christmas geese! We joked that we won't need to eat anything the entire rest of the trip. And our "suite" by the pool was absolutely divine. Totally spoiled. We also got to meet up with Bruce & Anne, and check out some of the sites with them. It was wonderful to catch up with what they've been up to in Perth, and give them the lowdown on all the usual suspects at home.
Onward and upward! We'll be in Penang for a few days, then it's on to Kuala Lumpur for some more couchsurfing and a gourmet dinner. What was I saying about not eating anything the rest of this trip...?
We started our last day in Bangkok the same way we started our first one: with 2-hour his & hers Thai massages. Seemed like an appropriate way to end this week of ridiculous self-indulgence.
After our final "just appeared magically outta thin air" brekkie -- sigh, I will miss those! -- a van appeared to take us on a day trip to Samut Prakan. Apparently we'd raved so much about going to Nong Nooch the other day, that Ma Tuk had decided we should visit the crocodile farm, as well as something called the Ancient City, or Ancient Siam. We weren't entirely sure what we were in for. Which is always an interesting place to start from.
We picked up Bruce & Anne at a nearby spot (and by "we" I mean the dude driving the van Ma Tuk had arranged for us), and headed out to Samut Prakan, the small town where the croc farm is located. It turned out to be a mildly interesting stop, but high on the depressing/cheesy scale. There were literally thousands of crocodiles in fetid breeding tanks, with swarms of mozzies lovin' on the foul still water. It was intriguing to see all the different shapes and sizes -- and there's something surreal about crocodiles, especially close-up -- plus there was some educational material on hand so you could feel like you was learnin' and not just gawkin'. The "crocodile wrestling" show was super-campy, and there was a ratty zoo on the other side of the facility. By that point I was just about over seeing animals in cages, so I encouraged our motley crew to push onward towards the next stop.
Ancient Siam was really cool. I'm pathologically unable to resist comparisons with major US attractions, so I'd liken it to Epcot Center but with a much higher level of detail. (Please don't tell The Mouse that I said someone else had more attention to detail... they may send someone out to silence me...) The park is an enormous complex of historical replicas and reconstructions from various points in Thai history, with a beautifully-maintained garden and floating market winding through the center. It's quite impressive, and we could have easily spent the entire day there. As it was, by the time we'd eaten lunch there were only a few hours left before we needed to return the van, so we probably saw about a quarter of the place. But I definitely enjoyed what we were able to see. Wandering around in the striking late afternoon sunlight was the perfect time to see the temples and ruins and gardens in all their glory. Definitely a photographer's paradise!
As we were nearing the end, a call came in from Ma Tuk informing us that the appointed restaurant had experienced some flooding. No worries, we'd had a late lunch and were really only interested in a parting drink with our friends. Khao San Road was recommended -- and what a relief, I'd been worried my card would be revoked if I didn't visit this mandatory stop on the backpacker trail! No need to lose any further sleep, as we headed into the heart of KSR to enjoy a drink at Suzie Bar. The drinks were weak and overpriced, and the service was glacial, but the peoplewatching was rockin'. It was amusing to see how the other half lives... how we *would* have lived for the past week without our fabulous hookup from Zoe. The street was filled with farangs humping dirty backpacks, and vendors trying to sell them stuff. No time to be smug, that'll be us starting tomorrow.
We said goodbye to Bruce & Anne, who were returning to Perth the next day, and headed home to pack. Yuck! Definitely my least favorite part of travel. But we managed to cram everything back into our bags, including some last-minute clothing gifts from Ma Tuk. We went over to the main house, gave Ma Tuk a nice bottle of wine as a token of our deep appreciation, tipped the maids for doing our laundry and bringing us breakfast each day, and said our goodbyes. It's definitely going to be sad to leave this wonderful place, but it's time to move on.
296/1 Sukhumvit Road, Bangpoo,
Samut Prakan 10280
Tel. : 0-2709-1644-5
Another mostly-veg day, with a stellar Vietnamese lunch at Winner House, and then a home-cooked dinner with a tableful of traditional regional Thai delicacies. The food itself was phenomenal, but just to kick it up a notch we ate in the party room, an enormous suite with a bar, huge dining table, karaoke area, and of course a metric ton of antiques. We're not worthy!
On to Siam Niramit, the show at the Thai Cultural Centre. It was an *amazing* performance; highest production values I've seen outside of Cirque du Soleil. The show was broken into three acts: history, mythology, and festivals/celebrations. The stage was immense -- there were boats floating by, explosions, flying creatures, rain onstage -- and of course the costumes were phenomenal. Oh, and also elephants, chickens, and a few goats. They did a pretty good job of explaining what was going on, in several different languages. Wrapped around the theater was a replica of an ancient Thai village, something akin to Colonial Willamsburg... thatched huts, women doing traditional craft work, a few snacks to sample, and even a canoe to ride through the center. At 1,500 Baht the tickets weren't cheap, but it was totally worth it.
We managed to miss a huge rainstorm while inside watching the show, so afterwards it was the perfect time to meet up with Bruce (Anne wasn't feeling well) to check out what we lovingly refer to as "The Seedy Underbelly." We'd gotten some recommendations from a friend who used to live in Bangkok, and grabbed a cab to Soi Cowboy. This turned out to be a densely-packed one-block strip of neon-encrusted clubs designed especially to separate bloated pasty farangs from their cash. After hearing stories about the ping-pong shows and other aspects of Bangkok's notorious nightlife scene, I was a bit disappointed at how tame it all was. Probably the combination of a Sunday night plus the whole town being in low-gear out of deference to the Princess. But there wasn't much going on in any of the four strip clubs we checked out. Great people-watching, and interesting to note that most of the girls seemed to be fresh off the bus from Laos. But not nearly as saucy as I was expecting.
Winner House Vietnamese Cuisine
(there are actually several locations but this is the one we ate at)
68/5-6 Lertubon Village Sukhapibal 1 Road Latphrao
Bangkok, Thailand 10310
Tel/Hp : 662-5708923 662-5708567
19 Tiamruammit Road, Huaykwang, Bangkok, Thailand 10320
Tel: (662) 649-9222
Lots of activity around the house today, as Ma Tuk and her cadre of helpers got the place ready for "a little lunch party." They set up tables by the pool, and ordered enough food to feed an army. We were summoned down to the main house (cell phones as intercom, that's handy!) to watch some of the funeral proceedings on TV. What a huge affair! On par with Princess Di's funeral, methinks. Gigantic parade down the center of town with the body ensconced in an enormous gold boat that is apparently only used for royal funerals. I don't even know how many thousands of peole were involved in the parade -- several squadrons of monks, some high-ranking generals, plus at least a dozen different military divisions, each with their own distinct uniform and silly hat ensemble. My favorite was the tall blue Marge Simpson-looking hat, but the puffy Beefeaterish hats were a close second. It was tough to follow exactly what was going on, except that the beloved Princess, older sister of the king and doer of great charitable deeds, was being paraded verrrrrrrry slowly through the streets of Bangkok.
Around noon, Bruce & Anne arrived along with an assortment of aunts, uncles, cousins, friends. We showed them around the estate -- they were suitably impressed -- and then it was time to eat. The usual ridiculous feast, and everything was insanely delicious. The assorted fruits were particularly lovely... everything from mango and watermelon to jackfruit, dragonfruit, star fruit, and Thai pears. Yum!
We hung out for a bit, and then took a trip out to Chatuchak Market. It was about as frenzied as expected, although not as manic as the flower market, which is still the gold standard for completely loco. Chatuchak is one of Bangkok's biggest markets, pretty touristy, with rows and rows of just about anything for sale you could possibly imagine. Lots of cheap clothing, tacky tchotchkes, crafty goodness, and of course tons of food! It was difficult to even think about eating after the afternoon's feast, but I did buy a Thai iced coffee, which was delicious and served with much aplomb. We picked up a few souvenir items, and eventually found a taxi that would take us back to the house for a reasonable amount of baht. Yes, we are walking dollar signs, I realize that, but do we really need to be raked over the coals EVERY time we get into a cab?
Back at the house, it was time for another meal of the leftovers from lunch. Bruce & Anne were incredulous, like "are you kidding me? we're eating AGAIN??" We just shrugged, knowing it's useless to struggle against the indomitable force of Ma Tuk's hospitality, and dug into another plate full of treats. Life does not suck.
On the advice of Ma Tuk, we set out on a day trip to Pattaya, a town about an hour from Bangkok that's famous for its nightlife and its ladyboy shows. We'd made arrangements the night before with the concierge at Baiyoke Sky (Bruce & Anne's hotel) to hire a van for the day, and got a bilingual list of recommended stops from Ma Tuk. The first clue that this would be a challenging day came when the van showed up an hour early. Yikes! Mai ben rai (the Thai version of "no worries, mon") we quickly scrambled on some clothes and got underway to pick up Bruce & Anne. The second clue should have been when the daytime concierge at Baiyoke Sky asked us which hotel we wanted to be dropped off at. Huh? We showed him the same list we'd presented to the nighttime concierge, explaining that these were the places we wished to see, and could he please make sure the driver understood these instructions? That seemingly taken care of, we grabbed a quick cup of coffee and hit the road.
We were well into catching up with our friends, whom we hadn't seen since they moved from DC to Perth over a year ago, when our borrowed cell phone rang. It was Alex, the night concierge with whom we'd made the original arrangements. Long story short, he thought we'd only wanted the driver to take us to Pattaya and drop us off somewhere. No, we'd like to come back to Bangkok, please and thank you! Not sure how those wires got crossed, but we managed to smooth it all out en route to our first stop. The cost of the van was probably much higher that what Ma Tuk could have arranged for us, but we certainly got our money's worth.
After ensuring that our driver would, in fact, be bringing us back to Bangkok at the end of the day, our first stop was Wat Yansangwararam (and if you think that's a mouthful, you should see it written out in swirly Thai letters!). This enclave of several temple styles plus a lovely garden had very few visitors and little instructional signage, but was a cool place to wander around and snap some pics. At the upper end of the compound sits a neat white chedi with a huge gold altar in the center. It's clearly a very sacred place (no shoes, cover up any exposed limbs, no photos) but the gigantic "Engrish" sign at the entrance made us giggle a bit. If the day we were there was any indicator, they don't get a lot of farang visitors. But, to me, being totally out of place somewhere is a sign of great success. The other noteworthy area was a long hall with exceedingly creepy and very lifelike wax statues of famous monks. You almost expected one of them to blink, and the rest would come alive like something out of a Stephen King novel. Creepalicious!
The next stop was simply listed on the paper as "Nong Nooch Garden," so we were expecting maybe a quick walk through a botanical garden before lunch. Couldn't have been more wrong! We spent the next four hours traipsing around something akin to Thai Disneyland meets Wild Kingdom. The place was enormous. It had a zoo area, several manicured gardens, a skywalk, and two shows. The first, billed as a "Thai Cultural Show," was actually a pleasant surprise and not nearly as cheesy as expected. It had pretty high production values, and provided a sampling of several different Thai dance styles and other cultural snippets. If the fake muay thai fight scene was any indicator, it probably was a pretty campy affair, but it was most entertaining. The "Elephant Show," however, was downright depressing. It was cool to see elephants close-up, but we all agreed that we'd rather see them doing elephant things, not dressed up in ridiculous flouncy costumes playing basketball or dancing with hula hoops. Oh well, at least they seemed to be well fed.
Right then, on to the kathoey (ladyboy) show at the Alcazar Theater! Once again we weren't quite sure what to expect. Thailand, and Pattya in particular, is known for its kathoeys, graceful and convincing transvestites that are not only tolerated but often revered in Thai society. Personally, I was expecting a small cabaret bar/restaurant setup a la Perry's Drag Brunch in Adams Morgan. Oh no, friends and neighbors, this was a full-on Vegas-style production, with elaborate sets, complex lighting design, and incredible costumes. It was hard to believe that some of the performers had (or used to have) penises. There was clearly a lot of plastic surgery in evidence, and some of the transitions were a bit more obvious than others. But it was a fabulous show. And it was pretty impressive how they catered to their audience. The busful of Indian tourists totally ate up the Bollywood number. The Japanese group clapped extra hard for the kimono-and-cherry-blossom act. And the Russians sang along to what was clearly a pop tune from their part of the world. The Belinda Carlyle song and the theme from Dreamgirls were both a bit surreal for me. But they definitely covered their bases!
After the show would have been the ideal time to go out and explore Pattaya's notorious nightlife, but we were concerned about getting the van back in a timely manner, and we figured it was easier to have the driver take us to the restaurant recommended on Ma Tuk's instruction sheet. So we hopped back into the van, but it turned out the place was right next door to the theater. As we sat down, the phone rang. It was Ma Tuk checking in on us, asking how we liked the show and if we'd found the restaurant. And then she asked to speak with the waiter, whose theatrically quizzical look when we handed him the phone was worth the price of admission. He spoke with her for a few minutes, nodding, and then handed the phone back, saying that our dinner had been ordered for us. Bruce & Anne were a bit incredulous at that, but we assured them that this had pretty much been the MO for the week, and it was just better to sit back and let the food be ordered for us. Sure enough, everything was delicious, and we got the "friend" discount because Ma Tuk knew the owners. Sweeeeet.
15 km south of Pattaya City, off Sukhumvit Road
78/14 Moo 9, Pattaya 2nd Road, Pattaya City 20150, Thailand
Tel: (66-38) 4102247
We haven't had much time to blog during the past week -- too much to see and do! -- but I thought I'd put together a highlights reel with a few teaser pics, for those of you waiting patiently at home.
Bangkok: temples, food, Zoe, Loy Krathong, and more food
We began this festive holiday with another festive 2-hour massage, and a breakfast featuring the funky custard apple. This bizarre fruit looks like a cross between a grenade and an artichoke on the outside, with a silky white interior and big black watermelon-type seeds at the core. I think it's one of my favorite food finds in Bangkok so far, although it definitely falls into the category of "How did anyone ever figure out that this wacky-lookin-thing might be good to eat???"
After a quick email check, we headed to the nearby market to pick up some goodies for lunch. Not nearly as frenetic as last night's flower market, it was a huge covered farmer's market featuring all manner of fresh fruits & veggies, prepared foods, and a vast array of meats & seafood. We picked out a dizzying combination of satays, salads, sweets, and a few more oddball fruits. By this point Mark and I were starting to get a bit of a handle on the culinary scene -- which skewers of what go with which sauce, and what the hell those freaky merangue tacos are all about -- but there was still a lot to choose from. Fortunately Zoe's cousin Kung knew all the best vendors, and helped us navigate to the right stalls. I almost got some durian, that infamous foul-smelling and nasty-textured fruit that you either love or hate (and most people hate it based solely on the smell), but that will have to wait till another day.
Lunch was the usual insane affair, with a small army of plates and platters and arrangements of exotic snacks. Mark learned an important lesson about how verrrrrrry small peppers can be deceptively cute but wickedly spicy. And after lunch, time to make the krathongs! These small boats made of palm leaves and flowers become offerings to the river goddess, as a means to wash away the past year's transgressions and start anew. Taking the materials purchased at the flower market, and trying not to be complete bumbling idiots, we followed Zoe's example and set about folding palm leaves, arranging orange and pink flowers, and topping our creations off with a candle and three incense sticks. And, voila! Krathongs for the festival. We tested their seaworthiness in the pool, and learned the correct protocol for offering up a prayer to the goddess before setting one's krathong afloat. OK, we're ready for the fest.
There was quite a bit of discussion as to how and where to best enjoy the Loy Krathong festivities, since Zoe & family would be celebrating with a quiet night at home and we two farangs would be on our own. That was understandable, as it struck me as the equivalent of celebrating July Fourth on the DC Mall amidst the huddled masses. After you've been-there-done-that, the noise and the crowds and the heat loses its luster. And, really, we'd been coddled enough; it was time to strike out and see the town on our own. So it was decided that we'd be dropped off in nearby Thonburi, a nearby suburb, which was closer to the house and not quite as frenetic as downtown Bangkok.
Spending Loy Krathong in Thonburi turned out to be a truly authentic experience, as we were the only whiteys at the celebration, which was awesome. We spent the next few hours wandering through a maze of street vendors selling everything from satay to Rubiks Cubes to fried bugs. A huge stage adorned with sparkly blue waves featured several traditional Thai dance performances by spangled schoolkids, as well as an enormous beauty pageant. I have never seen such a colossal quantity of bejeweled gold headdresses, beaded evening gowns, and humungous hairdos all in one place; it was truly stupendous. We also watched several Muay Thai matches between eight-year-old boys, which was a bit shocking to behold but now we can cross that item off the list. Down the block we saw a takraw match, a sport that is somewhere between volleyball and hackeysack, with musical accompaniment. Right. At the riverfront, crowds of people lit their krathongs and set them afloat down the Chao Phraya river. They had a pretty interesting setup where you put your krathong on the edge of a little waterslide that shot the boats down to the water. Most of them flipped over before they hit the river, and the rest floated their way downstream to be collected by village kids.
Overall, it was a splendid way to witness one of the biggest Thai festivals of the year. Much like my experience at the festival in Nebaj, Loy Krathong in Thonburi was bewilderingly alien and yet somehow universally familiar. When people gather to celebrate anything anywhere in the world, you have food & drink, entertainment, sporting events, and the cosmic desire to shake off the daily grind and party with your friends and neighbors. Happy Loy Krathong, everyone!
* WWJD? The Great Allentown Fair comes to Nebaj
* Chachoengsao and a river cruise
* more info on Loy Krathong from Wikipedia
* scroll through photos from the farmer's market
* all Loy Krathong photos
Haven't had much internet access lately, but I did want to check in quickly from Bangkok. We finally managed to make it out of Singapore (more details to be backfilled shortly) and are hanging out with Zoe and her family, eating our way through Bangkok. Yum!
Pics and stories when I have some more time...
Today we were supposed to go to Ayutthaya, UNESCO World Heritage site and former capital city of Thailand. But apparently there's been some flooding there lately, so we changed plans and headed out to Chachoengsao. While not exactly off the beaten path, Chachoengsao is a town about an hour from Bangkok that tends not to be on anybody's "Top Ten" list. It does, however, have a beautiful Buddhist temple that's worth visiting.
After breakfast, Ma Tuk, Zoe, Mark and I piled into the van and Pop drove us out towards Chachoengsao. Along the way we stopped for some lunch at a lovely riverside restaurant serving river prawns and other delicious seafood. During lunch we got a crash course in Thai cuisine: how tom yum soup incorporates all three primary flavors (sour, salty, sweet); which noodles are typical in southern dishes; how to make coconut milk and curry paste from scratch like Zoe's grandmother used to do on a regular basis. Lunch was, of course, stunningly delicious and overabundant. The local river prawns were nearly the size of lobsters, and the mango sticky rice was LIKE BUTTAH. Whew.
Next stop was Wat Sothornwararamworaviharn, which is thankfully also known as Wat Hong, an enormous gleaming white and gold Buddhist temple. Inside, a group of two dozen monks sat chanting at the head of the temple. Later on we found out it was a graduation/initiation ceremony for new monks, and family members posed for pictures with the initiates just like at a high school graduation. It was another beautiful day -- say it with me, so much nicer than Singapore! -- and we strolled around the grounds for a while. Next to Wat Hong was a Chinese temple, which we checked out as well. And I finally found out what all the stick-shaking is about! You're supposed to say a prayer and shake the container until one of the wooden sticks falls out. Then you take the stick over to the desk and the attendant pulls out a corresponding paper with your "fortune." Mine said something about having many offspring, so I guess it's not something to be taken too seriously.
That night we took a river cruise along the Chao Phraya. The food was great (of course) and atop the roof deck we got a preview of some of the boats all lit up for Loy Krathong tomorrow. The cruise was a nice way to see Bangkok sparkle at night, including several of the gorgeous suspension bridges that all seem to be named after one of the many King Ramas (the current king is number nine). And as an added bonus, downstairs was a cheesy wedding-singer-ish band doing goofy songs for the kids.
On the way back we stopped at the night flower market. Sheer madness. Crowds and vendors crammed into tight spaces, sometimes spilling out into the street, all vying for bargains and mass quantities of fresh flowers. They set up around 9pm and go till about 9am. It's crowded on any given night, but since this was Loy Krathong eve, it seemed as though all of Bangkok was shoving its way through the market at once. We picked up armloads of fresh flowers and piles of palm leaves to craft our krathongs for the holiday, and tried to get out without being completely mowed down by armies of determined Thai shoppers. Yikes!
It's hard to have a bad day when it starts out with two-hour His & Hers Thai massages. Especially when the masseuses show up in your bedroom. Life does not suck!
Thus began our weeklong adventure in the gravitational pull of Ma Tuk's universe. Maids showed up in the morning with breakfast, which we nibbled in the sitting room/kitchen next to our bedroom. Then the two-hour massages. Then an amazing four-course lunch down at the main house with Zoe and Ma Tuk. Then we got driven downtown to do some siteseeing. Independent travel? Not this week.
Still reeling from our luxurious morning, and clutching a loaner cell phone with Pop the driver's number, we exited the van in the middle of the downtown Bangkok tourist district. The first thing we noticed was the lack of oppressive humidity a la Singapore. The second thing were the hoards of locals dressed in black, paying homage to the king's sister who'd passed away in January. There were pictures of her all over town, and some kind of setup for a big party near the government buildings. They do reverently love their royal family in this country, which is a bewildering thing for an American to process.
The Grand Palace, a sprawling complex of building comprising temples, gardens, and government buildings, is one of the must-see items for anyone who travels to Bangkok. Tucked into the middle of the busy downtown area, the whole complex is a bit Disney-esque and quite surreal. Bright shiny buildings sparkling in the sunshine, throngs of camera-toting tourists... it's hard to know where to start and how to make sense of it all. So we mostly just wandered around and snapped tons of photos. The centerpiece is Wat Phra Kaew, the temple that houses the Emerald Buddha, and the dazzling structures that surround it. The amount of detail packed into a small space is just amazing: a giant gold chedi, temple walls covered in porcelain mosaic, strange pointy architectural accents, miles of murals depicting Thai historical and mythological scenes, juxtapositions of menacing demons and benign buddhas and tranquil gardens. And people everywhere; regular tourists in street clothes alongside saffron-robed monks with digital cameras. Oh, and a model of Angkor Wat in the middle of it all... cuz, y'know, why not?
The grounds of nearby Wat Pho provided a soothing contrast to all that chaos. The main attraction here is the giant gold reclining Buddha, a 150-foot long gold-plated statue with inlaid mother-of-pearl on the soles depicting 108 auspicious scenes from the Buddha's life. Behind the statue are 108 metal pots; worshippers drop one coin in each for blessings. So as you're passing in front of this enormous gold Buddha, you can hear a rhythmic clanging coming from the other side. Wat Pho is also known as the birthplace of traditional Thai massage, but since we'd already had two solid hours today, we skipped that part.
Pop eventually came in to fetch us. He seemed anxious to get back, and when we saw the traffic, we knew why! Bangkok traffic is legendary, soul-numbing, and unavoidable. It took us almost an hour to get back to the house.
That evening was a continuation of the cavalcade of culinary capers. First: dinner at a sukiyaki restaurant, where we challenged the concept of "all you can eat." Then, a trip to the cavernous Paragon Mall, which used to be Asia's largest shopping center but has somehow been eclipsed. (I shudder to think of an even bigger mall than this one.) We made a beeline to the high-gloss food court, an endless assembly of snack vendors stretching as far as the eye could see. Zoe and Ja navigated through the various stalls, picking out treats for tomorrow's breakfast. It was hard to know which end was up... the snacks just kept on coming! Armed with fruits, pastries, and completely unrecogizable food items, we headed home. If every day is going to be as jam-packed as this, I'm not sure we're going to last the week!
Today was a travel day of exhaustion, unlike any I've lived through since my Red Umbrella travel day in Costa Rica. We started off with a spot of brekkie, confident in our revised booking on a long-haul bus to Kuala Lumpur. Sam, the Fern Loft manager whom you may recall from such misadventures as yesterday's Oopsie, That Wasn't a Real Reservation After All -- had assured us several times yesterday that we were to catch the bus "right out front!" By the third or fourth time, we asked, "Really? Just right out there on the sidewalk?" I started to feel like an idiot. I tromped out to street level about an hour before the bus was scheduled to arrive, to wait for... something... to show up. Meanwhile, scores of old people disembarked from city buses and made their way painstakingly up the sidewalk to the temple next door, staring suspiciously at the strange farang sitting there looking completely outta place.
The longer I sat, the more nervous I got. Of course Sam wasn't due in till 11am, a good two hours after we were scheduled to depart, so there was nobody around to query as to the status of our transport. Meanwhile, more than an hour had passed, and nothing resembling a long-haul bus had come anywhere nearby. Thanks for nothing, Sam! Before I continue on with our tale, allow me to pause and demarcate two important Travel Lessons Learned:
1) Never trust the Gen Y staff at a hostel to book your travel for you. The owner, perhaps. But only if you've got his cell phone number as a backup.
2) Always get a confirmation number, in writing, as well as a phone number for the transport company. This is not failsafe, as many of them don't bother to answer the phone, but at least you can call them later and demand your reservation fee back.
Right. Seems pretty obvious in retrospect, but not necessarily when you're in the thick of it.
Despairing of ever leaving Singapore, we decided to take matters into our own hands and go down to the bus station and get our own damn tickets our own damn selves. Which is what we should've done in the first place. ::: sigh ::: We got in a cab and headed down to the Harbourfront Centre, where we were to find the Aeroline bus office. Aeroline had been recommended by Ken, our couchsurfing host in KL who was already planning for our visit in two weeks, so we figured it was a solid pick. Finding the office, however, took some doing. The "bus station" was also an enormous cruise ship port. Busload after busload of Asian tourists streamed endlessly through the parking lot, but there was no obvious bus office. After a few wrong turns, Mark found the counter inside a huge warehouse, and meanwhile the 11am to KL pulled up outside, where I was standing guard over our stuff. I did a few quick calculations in my head and determined that this bus was probably our last chance to make our flight to BKK. Typically, Mark was nowhere to be found. He finally reappeared, but sans tickets since the money was with me. I dashed up to the second-floor ticket counter, only to have the nice headscarved lady pleasantly tell me there were no seats left on the bus. What?!?!? You've got to be kidding me. Apparently she was, because when she looked again, two seats had magically appeared. OK, 94 Singapore dollars please. Cash only. Ehm. I only had 70 (which was the price of the nonexistent bus booked by that no-good Sam)... how 'bout some greenbacks? I keep a fistful of USD around for just such purposes. No dice, Singapore dollars only. Somehow I managed to dash downstairs to the exchange desk, back up to the ticket counter, and out to the bus with a handful of seconds to spare before it departed.
Sweaty, frustrated, and exhausted, we flopped into a pair of seats at the back of the bus. And we hadn't even left Singapore yet. Oh, it was definitely gonna be One of Those Days.
After all that, our bus ride to KL was actually quite pleasant. We met several friendly denizens of the bus, including a Filipino restaurant owner who said he wept tears of joy when he heard of Obama's victory, and a Malaysian guy who warned us of the pitfalls of the area's budget airlines. The bus itself was a nice cushy double-decker with meal service, reclining seats, and movies on the big screen. Although I probably could've lived without seeing "Alvin and the Chipmunks," and their version of "Bad Day" will be haunting me for the forseeable future. Even the border crossing between Singapore and Malaysia wasn't all that bad, even though we had to go through twice (once on the Singaporean side and once on the Malaysian side). The one stop, at a Malay rest stop about halfway, was an interesting forshadowing of things to come after our Bangkok sojourn. The place was swarming with flies, peopled with many women in headscarves, and as the only farangs we got lots of stares. I did take the opportunity to pick up some random Malay snacks, though. You just never can get enough fish-flavored chips, is what I always say.
We arrived in KL with plenty of time to catch our Air Asia flight, which was handy because getting to the gate was a whole other adventure. We got detailed directions to the airport from the bus attendant, strapped on our bags, and made our way through the rain to the LRT, Singapore's light rail. We just missed the train to KL Sentral, and by the time the next one appeared, a huge crowd had amassed on the platform. Well, this should be interesting! I guess it is rush hour, after all. We crammed onto the already-full train, as usual the only whiteys aboard, while the locals had a good stare. Fortunately it was only a few stops. After asking a few different places, we found the counter for the KLIA Ekspress, a swanky nonstop train that would take us right to the airport. It was lovely, air-conditioned, with padded seats, and unfortunately it took us to the wrong place! Which leads me to...
Another Important Travel Lesson Learned:
3) Always double-check to see if the low-cost carrier flies from the same terminal as the regular flights. Often it does not! And sometimes the other terminal is nowhere near the main one!
Ah. Right. Thought that whole KLIA Ekspress thing was too easy. So we grabbed a cab for the 30-minute journey to the LCC (as in "Low-Cost Carrier," ah yes! I get it now!) Terminal. To get there by public transport, I think we would've had to catch a bus at KL Sentral. Anyway, we had some time to spare, and it was only a $10 cab ride, so no harm no foul. We checked into our flight to BKK and even had time to grab our first taste of cheap Malay fast food: chicken and mee hoon. A bit greasy, but not bad. We even found a WiFi hotspot, one that actually worked! Things were looking up.
Air Asia has no assigned seating, so people tend to line up at the gate like sheep a good while before the flight is called. Which is a bit silly, because typically you have to walk outside and around the block to get to the plane anyway (or sometimes they send a shuttle bus for you). It didn't matter in this case because the flight wasn't nearly full. What a refreshing change! Air Asia gets top marks in my book. The web site is user-friendly and it's easy as pie to book online. I don't know how they keep the fares so low -- and no fuel surcharges either -- but the experience was consistently pleasant and the flights were on time throughout our entire SE Asia junket. Oh, and they didn't lose our bags once. Remarkable! (And, no, they're not paying me to say this. I'm just so shocked to be so pleased with an airline that I had to share the love.)
We arrived at BKK about two hours later. Finally! Got through immigrations and customs, hit an ATM for some Baht, and found our way to the appointed Starbucks on the third floor to wait for Zoe to show up. Actually, her family got there first: mom Tuk, brother Ja, and son Ben. We chatted with her mom for a bit while Ja went to find Zoe. Ms Thing showed up a short while later, looking all put-together and fabulous, while the two of us were totally bedraggled and scuzzy. Figures! That's OK, we're not here to impress anyone with our fashion sense. (And thank god for that.) We all piled into the minivan -- complete with *driver* -- and headed for home. As expected, the place is absolutely gorgeous, even in the dark. We have a beautiful 5-star suite in a separate building by the pool. Everything is decked out to the max with all manner of antiques. It's a bit insane. Fluffy towels, a stash of bottled water and sodas in the fridge, really nicely-appointed bathroom, great bed with tons of pillows. We didn't have a whole lot of time to take it all in before crashing, but it was a happy ending to a very stressful day.
Ya gotta love it when a totally-unplanned-for plan comes together.
It all started when our expat friends Bruce & Anne, DC transplants living in Perth, mentioned they were going to be in Bangkok in mid-November. We'd been considering taking a short trip to SE Asia... not short by typical American vacation standards, but considerably shorter than the extended travel we'd been hoping to undertake. One month total, focusing primarily on Malaysia and possibly also Indonesia. Why those two countries? A number of reasons, but I have to admit that ever since I started researching the scuba diving off Malaysian Borneo, I've been hooked. Jacques Cousteau called Sipadan, a tiny island off the East Coast of Borneo, some of the best diving in the world. You can dive there pretty much year-round, and supposedly it's an amazing place to see large animals. There are also a plethora of dive sites on nearby islands Mabul and Kapalai. And, bottom line, how cool is it to casually say, "Oh, yeah, we'll be doing some diving in Malaysian Borneo next month"?
We'd been seriously considering a one-month trip to this area, substituting Bangkok for Indonesia, when I found out one of my co-workers was going back to Thailand to visit family in November. The exceptionally-fabulous Zoe has been living in the US for some time now, but her mom still lives in Bangkok. She's goes back to visit occasionally, and I've seen pictures of the house. Suffice it to say, I'm planning to try to get adopted by Zoe's mom when we visit. Zoe offered that we could stay with her, as it turned out she would be there at the same time as Bruce & Anne. Sweeeeet.
Add to all this the fact that Loy Krathong, one of the biggest Thai holidays of the year, is also happening within this same window, and you have the makings of an insanely good time.
So, the general plan is to fly in and out of Singapore, since that's by far the cheapest hub in the region. (In case anyone's interested, I found the best fare on Vayama. I think the airlines are running scared because ticket prices seem to have dropped across the board.) We'll leave DC on November 5, the morning after the presidential election. And I fervently hope we leave on a note of celebratory elation due to an overwhelming Obama win, as opposed to a bitter hangover from drowning our sorrows after a McCain win. But I digress... We'll spend the week of Nov 9 in Bangkok, celebrating Loy Krathong and hopefully discovering some hidden gems only locals know about. Somewhere around Nov 18 we'll head south down the peninsula, stopping to visit whatever strikes our fancy. The last week of November and first week of December we'll spend time on Borneo, diving and hanging with orangutans and dodging headhunters and the like. We return to DC on December 4. And then, unfortunately, it's back to work the following week.
Stay tuned for more details as the plans evolve. This trip will be a little weird for me, as it's somewhere between a free-wheeling backpacker jaunt and a totally scripted type-A vacation. I hope to strike a balance somewhere in there! If anyone has any suggestions for must-see stuff in southern Thailand or Malaysia, do let me know.
Some of you may have noticed the little ChipIn widget in the sidebar. Taking a page from the Book of Joan, I've decided to ask for what I want for my birthday. (Just be glad I'm not declaring it a national holiday and announcing how many shopping days are left until November 6!) I've been wanting a better camera for some time now, so I thought I'd give an opportunity for folks to contribute towards this item. Many thanks to Beth at Wanderlust and Lipstick and Crystalicious for getting the ball rolling! The sidebar widget's a bit small and some of the text gets cut off. But anyone who chips in will get a postcard from Thailand or Malaysia. I'm planning to get a Nikon d40, which is a digital SLR that is a few generations behind the latest & greatest but has gotten consistently good reviews. If I get more than I need to buy the camera, the remainder will be donated to The Women's Center, a local DC charity that has been providing services to women, families, and the community for over 30 years.