Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Seven Hours in Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit

Back in the pre-internet days in the 'Nog, I had little access to 'outside' culture (which had its own kind of charm.)  When traveling in Asia, I'd try to break up flights with long lay-overs in in Bangkok, so as to head down to the backpacker ghetto of Khao San Road to buy cheap clothes, stock up on books, and watch a film or two at a sidewalk cafe.  Over the years it was a bit sad to watch the place gradually lose its charm, as more and more foreign chain stores drove up the rents.  Upon my last visit in 2009, I hardly recognized the place.  

The following details a half-day spent during my return from Bhutan in 2003.  

Bangkok!  What a different rush.  Got a ride into the city with the craziest cabbie in Thailand.  He talked as fast as he drove, a wild mixed mumble, as he cut into traffic using all the lanes twice within a single half mile.  (I tipped him well, then regretted it.  If he thinks driving like a madman will make him rich, then he's sure to kill some farang or himself.)  The only sign I saw welcoming me to Thailand had a Ronald McDonald on it (a Thai in whiteface).   A Thai model on a billboard looked like my wife.  On to Wat Po.

Went immediately to the massage area, greeted by a sexy girl in a clingy white dress, but massaged by her granny. (A transparent M.O.) But I appreciated the latter's experience.  She seemed to intuit where I had tension, though after two weeks away I had little.  It was about an hour but felt much longer, laying there clad only in surgical-type shorts on a yellow bed under lazy ceiling fans. 

Wandered the wat awhile.  Dogs lay asleep in the shade.  I entered a courtyard where I remembered from a previous visit a group of old women, but today it was only Buddhas and playful cats.  The Buddhas all had individual expressions, some were black and others had streaks of gold on their hands and foreheads.  I entered a building with a towering Buddha, stretched into a pagoda-shape and covered with jewels.  In another room was a tall Buddha whose escorts seemed to be in need of a touch up, their gold flake fluttering in spots due to the spinning fans.  I walked amidst the jewel encrusted towers and smiled as a fat monk who passed by.  I followed him to a fountain where many old people sat and chatted, in a place made cooler by sitting near water.  On into the pavilion with reclining Buddha, once again vast and incredible.  A group of monks were taking photos of his feet. rounding his heels, I hear a strange sound, which turned out to be old women dropping coins in what in Japan would be altar bells.     

Coming back out, I watched a security guard hassle some Western women about their attire. Rounding the corner of the palace, a friendly man greeted me and offered his advice on what to see in Bangkok.  I appreciated it but really wanted to head over to Khao-san Road quickly.  He wanted nothing from me, no stinger was attached, but he got kind of pushy, pulling over a tuk-tuk and fixing a price.  I got in and rode off, a hot noisy ride through the city.  At the lights, it was like a drag race, all revving engines.  One chubby boy threw water as we passed (Songkran?), but he only got my legs.  

I was let out at a Thai plantation/wat.  I watched a group of monks chanting.  When they finished, they paired off and seemed to bless one another.  In other rooms around the wat, younger monks were being given a lecture by a monk at the blackboard.  I walked into the main building, black and imposing against the sky.  Forgetting to take off my shoes, I was scolded.  Embarrassed, I quickly moved to the center of this building, part southern plantation, part Roman temple.  It was built on five levels, each being pillared with long even rows with Buddhas sitting at the end.  A few cats slept on the cool tile floors.  I climbed the central spiral staircase (on legs quaking from the recent massage) to the roof for great views of the city.  Dark clouds were moving in.  

Outside, the oncoming storms seemed to be led by a glowing corona.  I've never seen anything like it, real end of the world stuff. I walked toward Khao San Rd. for a couple of blocks, passing a few homeless people sleeping on benches, and dozens of young women selling what looked like lottery tickets.  On K.S. Rd I ducked into a cafe for a couple of juices to beat the 34 degree heat, and watched the world pass by.  Many farang walked slowly past, eyes straight ahead in an effort to look cool, to impress.  As I sat, the skies finally broke open, and the street vendors burst into action, covering their wares within seconds.  I wandered the street for a couple of hours.  Things had changed a lot since my first visit in 1997.  There were fewer cafes and many more shops. Vendors had increased too, their stalls facing both directions now.  The street itself seemed to have been closed to vehicle traffic, people walking freely down the middle despite the rain.  One section had been rebuilt into a mini-mall type of upscale chain shops. There again was Ronald, hands in a wai, the bastard. The backpackers themselves looked young, and I felt more out of place than last time.  When entering shops, the keepers greeted me in Thai.  Did they think I was an older expat, adapted into life here?

I bought a few things and settled in at a cafe to watch the street traffic.  A big Irishman in a cowboy hat sat at the next table and harangued me with his adventures, detailing especially the fights and the drugs.  I can't say I was very interested.  Another lonely guy on the road. 

As he chatted, one of the most beautiful women I've ever seen sat at the table below me.  And what followed was one of the most aggressive flirtations I've had in years.  Married as I was, I'd never act on this, but I did enjoy the attention.  Yet through it all, I was never sure if she was a pro.  Today, like last time, I noticed many young Thai girls with older Western men.  Though not surprised, I wonder at the extent of their relationships.  Did this woman like me, or see me as a mark?  Upon paying, either she noticed my wedding band, or noticed me bum a few bhat from the Irishman.  The eye contact stopped immediately.  It was time to go the airport.  

On the turntable:  The Hold Steady, "Boys and Girls in America"
On the nighttable:  W. Somerset Maugham, "On a Chinese Screen"

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