Right now, I have the lingering taste of the salmon bi bim bop they fed me, and I have exhausted the music programming, settling on the safe classical station- number three. I'm 32,000 feet high and the stewardesses are selling chocolates, cigarettes, and colognes. I am somewhere over Canada, watching a computerized image of our plane stretch its red line from its origin to our destination. Most people- including my neighbor- are asleep with eye covers and neck pillows. It has become dark outside, a pretty shade of wintry twilight glowing like ocean water from the oval windows. Someone in front of me just bought a cognac I have never heard of. I am thirsty...
This chair is not as comfortable as it looked. I had just emailed my dad, sister, Sarah, and Olia, and am now at gate 14 sitting on a grayish-lavender seat. A guy around my age just said hello. His name is Jung, and he just had a baby with his wife who is off shopping at the duty-free stores in Seoul's brand new Incheon Airport. He spoke English well enough to have a conversation with me for about an hour! He has never left Seoul, and this trip to Thailand will be his first. He is traveling with his wife (a shy 24 year old), his father, aunt, cousin, and of course his daughter, Jeesoo. He gave me a couple tangerines. Ironically, he works in music at a company called MNet, and does production for Korea's version of MTV. I asked him, "if your daughter grew up to be whatever you wanted, what would she be?" and he replied "a pianist." I said that I, too, would want a child in the arts, but that it's a hard life- not much money. He smiled and said, "but, much happiness. It's the simple thing and most important." And, he's absolutely right.
We boarded the plane and my new neighbor- whose name I never got- was a little too talkative and had a very odd smell about him; it was as if he wore rubbing alcohol as cologne to cover his halitosis. But, he was helpful and genuinely nice, and I managed to sleep for most of our five hour flight, curled up awkwardly with both feet on the armrest of the seat in front of me. We are now only ten minutes away from landing. There's an interesting, fresh smell in the plane- sterilized and moist like a light rain pumped through its cabin. I dreamt I had wandered in an airport and fell asleep on what I didn't realize was a plane and, when I awoke, we were already moving. They wouldn't let me off yet we were winding down the streets of Chicago... They took off after gaining speed on a highway bridge
I see the landing lights and the wheels are down. We are approaching. I am awake.
I knew not to pay 500 baht for the taxi, but I still went in and did it. My driver's name was Two, but probably doesn't spell it that way. I got dropped off at Khao San Road- a main drag in Banglamphu- and started walking among Thais and tourists, all of whom were around my age. A tout took me to a guesthouse that was too expensive, and I went out looking on my own, winding blindly down dimly-lit streets where everything was closed. Apparently, most businesses don't stay open after 1:30 in the morning- what a surprise! Anyway, I saw a Chabad house and figured it was a sign. When I turned the corner, I found an awesome guest house named "Green House" that was jumping. There were thirty kids drinking, playing pool, or surfing the internet, and the girl at the desk- Dao- said there was indeed a private room available- room B2: a very small room with a fan, a window opening to a back hall and a bathroom with a toilet and shower (no sink). For 200 baht a night- including free internet and amenities such as laundry, travel agency, pool, and a restaurant and bar- I think I am doing just fine, thank you!
I was so awake- and still am- so I walked to Khao San Road. I am already pretty disgusted with the amount of tourists I am seeing, most of whom seem fucking obnoxious, drunk, and white, but what can you do? Nothing. I went into a convenient store and bought green tea (beer is not sold after midnight) and found a very busy restaurant: Khao San Center, open 24 hours. I asked to see a menu, and set my tea down at a table seating two Thai girls, one looking mysteriously like a boy. I have seen a ton of lady-boys, but was stumped by this one. I asked for a table and the waiter pointed at the table with the girls. The one who was definitely a girl smiled at me, and I refused. I asked again for a table and again was told to sit with them, so I figured, why not?
The girl-girl's name was Jennie, and she studies classical Thai dance here in Bangkok. Her friend, the mysterious one, spoke very little and ate an enormous plate of shrimp and rice within two minutes of me sitting down. Another girl showed up with enormous fake breasts, flanked by two men my age, and it was soon clear that they were all friends. My food came and we all sat together: Nanni, a quiet Thai; Casey, a seemingly gay Thai who now lives in Stockholm; Natasha, the girl with the implants and blonde hair (also from Stockholm) who arrived today for a three-month holiday; and Jennie and the girl who looks like a boy. I mainly talked to Jennie, but asked Natasha what she does for a living. I wasn't surprised to find out she's a stripper and does private parties. She, too, was Thai, but spoke the best English. Jennie was very flirtatious yet shy, and smiled goofily at me every so often, pursing her lips. I'd laugh at her, or make jokes, and she told me I was crazy. So, I put my hands over my face and opened them as I said "cuckoo" with the sound of a clock; this seemed to be very entertaining to them. She repeatedly said "cuckoo," and laughed. She seems very sweet. Apparently, she is going to northeast Thailand to visit her mother, and invited me to go with her. We exchanged information and I think it'd be nice to have a friend here with whom to go to the market or perhaps dancing.
I left at 3:45 and went to the guest house, speaking with Dao for nearly an hour. She, too, is very nice, and recommended places for me to go. I am so awake and so excited! I need to get on a normal Thai schedule, so I will try and sleep now. Much more to come...
I slept a bit- slept well, in fact- but awoke just before 8 to pee and then slipped into "I'm too excited and not tired enough to sleep" mode. I lay in bed, thinking hard, then tried not to think hard and berated myself for not being able to think of nothing; then I felt legitimized for not feeling tired because my schedule is completely flipped, and just gave in to it. At 9:45, I brushed my teeth once more standing in my shower/toilet/all-in-one bathroom, and headed out. It's sunny and beautiful, and there are so many fucking tourists that I want to gag. I bought soap and shampoo at a cute little convenient store (the same one I bought green tea in last night) and walked away from the main drag's barrage of guesthouses and restaurants catering to backpacking farang (westerners) just like myself. It is hard, cause I realize they are no different than me, really, and mean no harm, but it's nice to get completely away and fall into the real pockets of this city and culture.
I found a small street of sorts- really more of an alley- whose entrance has a restaurant with tables under an awning that stretches down about 20 feet against a concrete wall. A kitchen is against the wall, and they fry the food right next to you. A beautifully ornate green and gold fence runs along the other side, framed by potted plants and hanging foliage. A boxing school is just past, and I had walked in to be greeted- well, loosely, speaking- by a half-naked man who had been sleeping above, inside a wall facing the ring! There's a fight tonight in Lumphini Stadium. Damn, I spiced the hell out of these noodles! I gotta eat- pardon me.
Ah, thank you. Sorry for the line interruption. I am sipping a large Singha back at my guesthouse. I finished lunch at my alley gateway restaurant, and saw a cat (barely a cat, more of a young kitten) catch a bird in its mouth and run away. He got laughs from my chef and the others sitting nearby. I made it to Wat Pho and walked around the beautiful premises, snapping photos with my brand new digital camera. I knelt and prayed in front of the incense billows giving fragrance to golden Buddhas and flowers. I prayed for my friends, and prayed that my trip would continue to be wonderful. I saw other images: images of my mom, images of Sarah, images of my midnight-on in Bangkok, and I can't believe how it's been such a short time condensed into what feels like... Well, a week? A month? A lifetime? I only got two hours of sleep last night and eventually gave up. I am so glad I did.
As I walked in search of a massage, I saw the first tourist I wanted to talk to. I don't know what it was about him, but he seemed like me: he seemed like someone who wasn't a fucking retard and wasn't a jersey-wearing rugby fan, or a drunk blonde sorority dud like Katherine now behind me- talking to a Scot and an Asian who are both either being too nice, or actually believe they'll sleep with her. His name was Chris, and we wound up getting simultaneous massages that, although painful, were magnificent. For $7.50, I got an hour long massage that truly opened me up. It was not so much a treat of feeling as it was a necessity for my knotted limbs and back. The girl who gave it was a determined student who stood maybe five feet tall at most. She was good, and I was trying to breathe in and out- breathe the pain in, and blow it out. Chris and I would spend the day and night together after he waited for my masseuse to finish.
We walked to the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew, amazingly ornate buildings adorned with gold flaked glass and Buddhas in infinite poses. There were stoic guards dressed in green and white. The ones in green were menacing and carried machine guns- they spoke to you if you approached an area you shouldn't- and the ones in white were sad objects for tourist photography with children, mannequins who had been more than humbled with camera clicks of unclear intentions. Finding it difficult to leave that large castle-like enclosure, we made our way to the riverboat and to fruit vendors who sold us the mysterious and unique jack fruits, which tasted like a blend of banana and mango. We rode to a stop where Australians joined us. They were looking for a tailor who was making them three Armani suits for 800 dollars... Are you sure?
The Dusit Zoo sucked so fucking hard that I couldn't stop laughing. Most of the animals were statues for Christ's sake! And there were four lethargic tigers, one lion, and a few panthers. That was the disappointing highlight! Yet, the true highlight was laughing together and exploring the pages of our travel guides as they were translated into parts of a city.
We went to a Thai boxing match where- like many of the attractions we visited- held different cover charges for locals than it did farang. The fights were intense, and the eager crowd shouted what turned out to be code for different types of moves against the opponent: a knee to the ribs, for the crowds choice of victor, was "E!" Otherwise, there were "O!"s and other noises made while hands and arms waved fingers and baht frantically. I guessed incorrectly on every winner except for the one fighting in the main event, a guy in red shorts named "Rungrat." Finally, after moving around Lumphini Stadium and sitting too close to a drunk fan's vomit, we left and made our way via metro to the famed Patpong: an area full of sex shows which bordered on sad, pathetic, embarrassing, and unfortunate, while still hinting at a multitude of their own uniquely negative adjectives.
We entered maybe four identical places all promising the same vaginal feats before deciding on "Super Pussy." Immediately, we were accosted by four girls each. Some were attractive- others were hideous or lady-boys- and they began massaging us and making the blowjob motion with their hands and mouth, only to be repeatedly denied. It felt like Epcot Center: diluted culture offered to a large audience, none of whom appreciate nor fully believe it. I could've gotten head; I could've fucked any of those dancers pulling strung needles and cottonballs from their vaginas, but it would've been like fucking Minnie Mouse. I didn't know if I was more turned off by their harassment for tips and attention in general, or by the Australian and English people who were giving them exactly what they wanted and expected.
I went back to my guesthouse and checked email. I drank another large Singha, and smoked a couple cigarettes; I decided I'd get some air outside. An older-looking guy was walking my way from a nearby guesthouse, and opened conversation with "hey creature of the night." He had just arrived and was as wired as I was the night before- unable to sleep and out on the prowl. He was going to meet his wife whom he hadn't seen in months due to a glitch with citizenship paperwork, but had a while to kill. I immediately thought of Khao San Center, the 24-hour spot where I had met Jennie and her friends that morning, and told him I'd join him there.
His name was Brigham Moberly, but he initially introduced himself as Simone. He was twitching and shaking as we smoked, and the intensity in his eyes was not healthy. He admitted he makes designer drugs and that he had made himself a little pill cocktail; I was not surprised in the least. Meanwhile, there were two gorgeous girls sitting at a table directly behind him. I struggled not to stare too much and pay close attention to what he was saying. When they left, I was totally in the zone with his conversation- porn, the occult, designer drugs, being jailed in Mexico, and a yellow scorpion bite which sent him into convulsions- but then they returned and sat within plain view. I got eye contact with the brunette first, and stuck my tongue out at her. We smiled for a while, and I finally turned away. I did the same with the blonde, but again brought my attention back to Brigham's bizarre ramblings. Eventually, they were joined by a guy who had been seated nearby; when he got up to use the bathroom, I took the chance and went over.
As I expected, they were European- English, to be exact- and were very sweet. The brunette was named Sally, and was being very flirtatious, telling me she had a knot in her back and guiding my hand to it as she turned her body into mine. She'd grab my arm when she'd say something or want to see a photo I had just taken, and we were sharing cigarettes and lip balm. I became a super cock-block for the guy sitting with them, a Californian named Richard. Ruth, the blonde, was funny and talkative and, when Brigham came to sit with us, she paid him more attention than she did Richard as well. We hung out together until six in the morning, when the sun was beginning to rise over Khao San Road. We said goodbye without exchanging information, and I hoped would see them again. I got home and crashed hard.
I awoke at 11:45, showered for the first time since Saturday, and decided to go to Chinatown. I ate at Grand Restaurant on Khao San and sat in the sun until I was fed up of sweating and the "hello, where you from? where you going" from the tuk-tuk drivers. I finished up my shrimp and rice soup, then boarded the riverboat. Once in Chinatown, I tried my best to get lost in the labyrinths of Hello Kitty, dried fish, and textile shops, walking down the dark and narrow passages to find myself completely- and thankfully- away from the other westerners. And then, through an afforded glimpse between food stands and an open passage, I spotted a colorful temple with dragons and other designs on its roof. Inside were candles crackling as they burned, monks sitting silently in front of a television, and flowers, golden gods, and photographs- all equally motionless.
Then, back into chaos: motorbikes sharing a three-foot lane with passenger consumers, tourists, workers, and people just trying to get from here to there. Finding myself, I made my way to Wat Traimit and the Golden Buddha. It was impressive only in its history, to be honest. I followed sounds of drumming and children playing to a schoolyard, where a hundred or so students in white shirts and blue shorts were engaged in after-school activities. A professor invited me to sit and brought me tea. We sat talked about music and Thailand. It was nice to connect and learn more about Thai life.
I boarded a bus which was going in the wrong direction, then switched to another and rode for what seemed like forever until reaching Baiyoke Sky Hotel. I didn't come across it immediately, though; it took walking through one confusing hallway after the next in a mall in the midst of closing, and I was becoming frustrated. When I finally did get there, I found there was a fucking 120 baht admission fee. Fine. The observation deck was cheesy with a hot air balloon or rickshaw you could pose for pictures with, and the bar on the 83rd floor was over-priced as hell (well, actually it was slightly cheaper than it would've been in NY!). The rooftop deck rotated and that was cool... Worth three dollars? Well....
I again had bad luck with taking a bus going in the wrong direction, so I threw caution to the wind and took a taxi. I was dozing off in the car just as I am dozing off now and, once back out on the street with my poor map skills, it took someone pointing out I was completely turned around. I found a totally dead restaurant that didn't have the drinks I wanted, and I accidentally knocked over a chair as I left! The place I went to afterwards, called "To Sit," was full of Thais, so I incorrectly assumed it would be good. Nope! I had "spare ribs" which were really like pieces of pork popcorn, a noodle dish that was painfully bland, and my waitress fucked up anyway, bringing out my appetizer at the same time as my entree, including an additional item I didn't even order.
On Rambutri road- the same street as my guesthouse- I found the bar I had been looking for (called Deep) and was upset I hadn't done so sooner! There was a great band playing Thai music, and the crowd- all Thai except for one white girl- was all dancing and singing along. Earlier, before my detour in the wrong direction, I walked into a bar above Khao San Center called Shamrock. As I walked up the stairs, a passed-out Thai girl- who had either vomited or was about to- was being carried down to the soundtrack of drunk westerners inside: "Jump" by fucking Van Halen! Except, it wasn't a CD: it was a live Thai band doing a pretty great impersonation- especially the singer, who had all the Singha-drinking whiteys bopping about and hitting on ugly tourists. I got out of there in seconds flat. And, only a block away from all the buffoons traveling halfway around the world to be with people just like themselves was a fantastic, two-story bar with a Thai band, Thai clientele, (all of whom were welcoming and very nice) and Thai art on its walls. It closed only ten or fifteen minutes after I arrived, leaving me no choice but to stroll once again along Khao San Road for anything that was still open.
The girl who worked at Deep was very nice, and asked me to come see her again. I was introduced to her outside by a very funny gay boy. I was going to say something about the benefit of hanging out with only people indigenous to the country you are visiting, but of course that's not entirely true. It's obviously better to avoid the Disney Worlds of countries: the Shamrock bars with Van Halen cover bands, the guesthouse eateries serving cheeseburgers to those too timid or ethnocentric to have something as "exotic" as curry, and the markets selling small Buddhas alongside Bob Marley tapestries and tee-shirts emblazoned with Che Guevera's face or not-so-subtle drug references. Yet, in or around these places, you can sometimes find people like Chris, or Ruth and Sally whom you ran into last night on the street. Or Brigham, the kind of guy who is perfect company for one night- especially between 2 and 6 AM when everything is doubly interesting anyway.
But now, I'm on a train to Ayutthaya, escaping lady-boy prostitutes and dread-locked didgeridoo players (OK, OK, I did indulge last night on Khao San- don't shoot me!). I checked out of my home at Green House and was happy to see Dao at the front desk once again. I waved goodbye to Khao San and saw Ruth and Sally from the window of my metered-taxi. It's either a small street, a small world, or the most obvious option of all: ironic.
Arriving at the Huamphong train station, I found I was two hours early for the next train, so I wandered into Chinatown once more. I went to Wat Mahkong, the Chinese temple I wanted to see yesterday. There were amazing offerings and incense burning in prayer to the many gods, some of whom were dressed in flowers and gold. There were apples, bananas, and even chicken in baskets left for them, and many visitors were still putting other gifts down as monks wandered peacefully about. I am going to close my eyes for a bit, and not just because I'd rather not watch the old, barefoot man seated next to me blow his nose and cough into a dirty, pink washcloth.
I took a boat across the river from the train station and found Tony's Place- a guesthouse that luckily had one bed left. This Irish guy who walked up behind me got shafted and I felt kind of bad, but it's a dog-eat-dog world. Tony's Place seems hip, and got a great write-up in the Lonely Planet, so there you go. I put my dufflebag in the dorm with a Japanese guy who spoke little English, and walked through the markets to the main road. It's so fantastic being out of Bangkok- this place has such a different feel! I don't feel constantly badgered. I feel like I am within a more legitimate, pure, and older culture.
I found a little restaurant with a menu all in Thai, and did my best to communicate "chicken" and "rice" to the woman taking my order; it didn't quite work. She said "pink rice" which sounded a little suspect, so I figured she meant "pig rice," which would've worked fine for me. I asked "pig rice and vegetable," and then she picked up a small wooden menu that had English items and prices! We both laughed, and I had a yummy lunch of noodles, pork, and greens.
A 50 baht tuk-tuk ride got me to the elephant krall where Colin's ex Mary-Jordan lived for six months, and mentioning her name got me a 30% discount. I mounted an elephant and rode to see three ancient temples, then was able to travel by foot and see each up close. One elaborate building held an enormous brass Buddha that apparently was just plated in gold. And, the whole time, I wondered about the voice I heard over a loudspeaker, mixing with spinning lights and music in the distance. I soon came upon a festival!
Christmas lights hung low from the trees, and there were windmills with pink, blue, green, and orange blades, bordered by purple, yellow and green suns. Enclosing the large grassy space were booths selling food, candy, beer and soda, and the tables within it were full of celebrating Thais watching live entertainment on a main stage. I bought a Beer Chang and walked around smiling from ear to ear before finally sitting down to see the show. What will I do now? I can do anything. Life is so full of beauty and possibility. I feel my head being emptied in a sense: all of my worries and concerns disappearing, creating a new space for emptiness- if such an idea is possible. Maybe emptiness uses more space than things, because emptiness- or a lack of thought- is so pregnant with possibility, while things have already been defined and cataloged by our minds and hearts. When we are emptier and open, so are our minds and hearts, and thus so is the space they occupy. And, if this is so, maybe it means we are just more connected, more whole, and more human: human without the things which get in the way of our being one with other energy, and human only because of our bodies- not our minds and egos.
OK, I can't tell if it's this Beer Chang talking or if I am inspired by being completely alone halfway around the world, and wondering why it's so easy and natural. I thought today of the idea of being "lost," and how it has changed over the years for me. I know technically where I am- I can look at a map, or try and ask someone how to get somewhere I do know- but I think by definition, being lost is attaching fear to not knowing where you are! It's not being unable to discern your location in relation to where you want to be, it is being afraid of not knowing how to get there.... And I realize this applies to everything. I feel unafraid to be lost right now, lost in anything. Lost in a town, lost in a thought, lost in love. I am always somewhere I can define: I am here. Then, I leave, and I am still here. Although here changes from one there to another, it has little impact in the end because, as I've realized before, "here is from there, so nothing is lost."
And I am still sitting in this chair at the head of the table, listening to Thai singers right in front of my eyes- bathed in lights from the stage, the adjacent windmills and the moon- yet my here has changed because it's brought me somewhere else. You can travel and not leave: your thoughts can progress and mature into deeper realizations, changing what you thought was your "here" to a "there" before you realize it; you just smile in the new now, the new here. OK, it's time to change physical location. Let's go explore....
I got some squid with a spicy pepper sauce and didn't give too much attention to the other vendors' wares; I just spaced out and smiled as I slowly floated along from the large Beer Chang I had. Again, I allowed the noise and lights coming from afar to lead the way through families, couples, and children all seeming to be on top of the world. I passed a garden growing jack fruit and many other greens, a restaurant where everyone sat on mats underneath a large tent, and the lights and sounds were getting brighter and louder, shooting beams into the sky and exploding orange. I reached the entrance to an enormous park guarded by soldiers and surrounded by people. I was allowed through, and entered an elaborate sound and light show celebrating the history of Ayutthaya! The huge crowd stood transfixed at the 40 performers singing, riding elephants, and broadcasting the city's story through loudspeakers on either side. The left and right signals were inadvertently delayed just enough to make the whole experience psychedelic and almost unearthly, like we were watching a complicated show from an extra-terrestrial ship that had just landed, still illuminated from it's long trip. At least, that's how I felt at the time: just utterly amazed.
I peed in a restaurant nearby and returned to Tony's Place for dinner. I sat a few tables back from a group of Thais, and noticed they were passing me glances. Eventually, curiosity got the best of me and I used the "bumming a cigarette" ploy to take a closer look. One of the girls was adorable, and we gave each other a lengthy smile. I sat back down at my table and, over the course of the cigarette, she continually looked over her shoulder at me... So, I invited her over.
Her name was Boom, and in speaking to her I realized she had to have been very young. She was smiling at me, rubbing my red pen against her lips and face as she listened to my questions.
"How long are you in Ayutthaya?" I asked.
"It is up to you," she said.
She invited me to her home in Saraburi, telling me she wanted me to meet her mother and that her mother would cook for me. She seemed to have fallen in love with me after five minutes, and wrote her phone number in my Lonely Planet book. I felt strange about the whole thing, and kept mentioning Sarah and smiling uncontrollably. How could she have been 16? And although talking to her was totally innocent (it couldn't possibly have not been for many reasons), something felt undone and unsaid. Maybe that's why I was smiling so much: knowing what I could've said had everything been different in that moment, and knowing it was so beyond me and fairly ridiculous to even think so. It was this battle between one side of me that lived for experience, and the other that had the heart and mind to know that experience would remain only in the depths of my imagination. She asked if I wanted to see her, and I said to come tomorrow night and watch a movie. Maybe that would make her happy...
I awoke early the next morning and ate breakfast at Tony's Place: a delicious banana shake with soup of rice and pork. I rented a bicycle across the street and was on the road to see Wats [temples] by 9:30 or so! I was proud of myself! The first place I pulled into had an interesting graveyard. Some of the graves were tiled in mirrors, while others had small photographs of whom they held inside, circled in wreaths of flowers. An older man, also on a bicycle, rode towards me and said hello. His name was Alastair, but he introduced himself as John: his tourist alias in Asia. "It's easier for the natives to pronounce," he explained. After a quick conversation, we locked up our bikes and decided to "have a wander around" together.
Alastair is a landscape designer who works six days a week for nine months out of the year, and has a three month holiday. He's been to Thailand five times, and knows his way around quite well. He's been divorced for seven years and has two children, one of whom is my age and manages a bar, and the other who is 33 and will soon marry. He is sixty years old, balding, and of medium height; more importantly, he made a fantastic traveling companion that day.
We biked up the roads with scooters and cars passing us on the right and pedestrians on our left. Our second stop was a monastery, and inside was a startling and unique room. Facing the entrance was a painting of a smiling monk, balanced within a bed of lotus flowers in full bloom, and resting atop it was a glass display case with the most curious thing inside: the monk's actual body, dressed in a red robe, and slowly rotting away. I have never in my life seen such a thing, yet at the time, it really made perfect sense. For a people who have let go of suffering (or who aspire to accomplish that goal while realizing life itself is suffering) the body of their teacher is only that: a body- not a reminder that he is gone, and not a cause of suffering. A tangible way to hold on to what he meant to them and celebrate his life and teachings… In a country where stray animals are not killed and are even cared for by the monks, life means something much different, and so should its casing! That explains the abundance of cats and dogs roaming the streets and sleeping on the steps of temples and ruins, and the corpse resting on the lotus flowers- a flower that represents peace. A Buddhist's life is peace, and letting another have life is maintaining peace.
That day, we saw what I'd imagine was every temple and ruin in Ayutthaya- both by bike and later by a riverboat which encircled the city. We saw people placing flakes of gold onto a small image of Buddha, and monks dressing an enormous Buddha behind it in yellow robes. Similarly, many of the ruins have yellow cloth wrapped around them; a body is a body.
Our riverboat tour wrapped up at the night market, but it was only 5 PM by then. I got a strawberry slurpee to drink out of a bag, and we walked up U-Thanon Road to pick up our bicycles in the parking lot of a large shopping center. The sunshine in my head was making me dizzy, and my sunburn was already starting to tingle uncomfortably.
I went next door to the guesthouse and sat at a computer to check email- I wanted to write Sarah and my dad about my travels. A girl I had seen earlier at one of the temples was walking by outside, and we began talking. She's from Boston and was collecting unemployment: her parents were depositing the checks into her account every two weeks she was away. Our government was paying for her bills in Thailand! Pretty brilliant, I'd say. She, too, was traveling alone, and would be for quite some time. She was staying at Tony's Place as well, so I figured I'd see her later.
I got on my little purple bike and rode to Pae Krung Kao, a floating restaurant on the river. I felt sort of bad that I was not going to meet Alastair at the sound and light show- and that we possibly wouldn't meet again- but I had already seen enough of it and wanted to do something different with my last night in Ayutthaya. Biking down the streets with traffic- the air, the horns and voices I passed and that passed me- I felt so exhilarated. I was traveling fast, thinking about safety and the guesthouse manager Rain telling me to take care, and just pedaling all of my fear away. It's too bad that my dinner was not the greatest, but the ride to and from the restaurant was worth it!
Returning to Tony's Place sweaty, sunburned, and a little buzzed from the Singha I had with dinner, I noticed Etta sitting on a couch in front of the television and drawing, waiting for the movie to begin. There was a half an hour to wait, so I showered and changed clothes. But, when the movie began, neither of us cared: we were too busy talking. Besides, it was fucking Heath Ledger in "A Knight's Tale." So, she and I walked over to the lounge area, and I reclined in the hammock- where I'd stay for the next six hours talking to her and listening to music from headphones hanging over the arm of her chair. I was amazed. She had Diverse, Push Button Objects, Prefuse 73, and a thousand other things in her mp3 player. I love how music brings people together.
I was getting more and more sleepy, and would even hallucinate when I closed my eyes. At two in the morning, we said goodnight, and I promptly passed out. Right now, I am sitting in Lopburi at San Phra Kan, a shrine to the Hindu god of Kala who represents time and death, watching a monkey sitting on a pool of water's edge, staring at his reflection and then losing interest. Another monkey sits nearby on the grass slowly eating food, and a crowd has formed around him. From the looks of it, this guy couldn't care less.
I left Ayutthaya today and almost felt a little sad to do so. It was a wonderful place and I really had an amazing time, but there's so much more to do and, like so many other things, my time there had to come to an end. I said goodbye to Rain and the other girl at the guesthouse desk, and imagine this: I saw both Etta and- almost more surprisingly- Alistair! Etta had been doing some research in an internet cafe nearby, and Alistair was sitting alone at the train station reading. Again, it's ironic that I see people with whom I had made a connection and not really said a proper goodbye or "see you soon." We traded email contacts and I boarded the train, eating egg, rice, and pineapple.
There's a beautiful breeze right now, and the monkey at the pool has laid his head on his arms to sleep. It's time to keep moving.
I walked across the street to Prang Sam Yot, a Hindu-turned-Buddhist temple with three towers that were absolutely flooded with monkeys! I walked inside and down a walkway connecting them. Through jail-like bars, monkeys swung or sat, climbed or lay being preened, but all suddenly stared at me. It is remarkable how much their faces resemble ours, and it was eerie to stare in their eyes. It was also interesting to see how their expressions change: I'd bark or otherwise try to startle them, and they'd get this look of momentary surprise that would soon turn to apathy. My camera strap was hanging as I took a photograph, and one of the monkeys grabbed and tugged at it! He actually smiled when I pulled it away!
While outside wandering the towers, I realized there were a lot more monkeys than I saw initially from inside. They were a half-friendly, half-threatening infestation, and you never knew how close you could get to them before something would happen; yet, it didn't seem like they wanted to harm you as much as they wanted to do something out of curiosity- probably the same curiosity we have in regards to them. A little girl was posing for her mother near one when the monkey- completely unprovoked- decided to jump onto her back! Needless to say, this Thai girl (who couldn't have been over five years old), flipped out. Her mother rushed to grab the monkey from her, and the monkey then returned to his business of staring blankly at nothing, acting as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened; the girl smiled nervously and stood close to her mother. I've never seen such an innocent photo opportunity go so awry until I walked around the temple to take some snapshots myself.
There were a number of monkeys laying about, and two were slowly on the move down a staircase, facing me as I held my camera to set up the shot. When one left the frame, I didn't bother to see where it went until- all too soon- the fucker had wrapped himself around my right leg! Without so much as even a thought, I karate-kicked to send him flying off, and he regained his bearings four feet away; I don't know what I would've done if he had held on tighter!
Across the street was a winding market selling random silkscreened tee-shirts with phrases like "I partied at McDonald's" above Ronald McDonald and the whole crew, or "Oh my God!" to describe a picture of a peeing little boy who just had the toilet seat crash down on his penis. I did, however, contemplate buying a 500 piece Britney Spears jigsaw puzzle (!!??) as well as a cute little toy keyboard slightly longer than my hand.
Weaving in and out of tacky wares and the shoppers buying them, I discovered the ruins of King Narai's palace: Phra Narai Ratchaniwet. It was huge and enclosed within a large wall. This king had begun trade with the west, and was homies with Louis XIV and others from Europe. There was a museum on the grounds which held artifacts ranging from Buddha heads and images such as "Buddha Subduing Mara" or "Buddha with Hood of Naga," all the way through weapons, currency (cowrie shells and bullets), and copies of the king's handwriting.
I was getting a little museum-ed out, and needed to eat. For the life of me, I couldn't find this fucking "Chinese-Thai" restaurant mentioned in the Lonely Planet, so I settled on the White House Garden Restaurant where I ate- with great and unwarranted difficulty- a Chinese-style steamed crab. What a waste! It took nearly an hour to get what little tasty meat was inside the thing, and most of that was devoted to removing its shell-shards from my sticky fingers and tongue.
On my way back to King Narai's palace later that evening for a performance, I stopped at a small place for a face massage! This was pretty wild: as I lay on a long bed draped in towels, goop of an unknown origin was rubbed on my cheeks, chin, forehead, and eye sockets. It was a strange and almost uncomfortable sensation until I finally relaxed- at which point it was just plain strange. When her fingers reached the area between my eyeballs and their sockets, I started enjoying the tingling; I suppose, in the end, the slime-fest wound up being worth the 99 baht it had cost. And suddenly, I was speaking to a stranger on someone's cell phone with the shit all over my face and laughing hysterically [this is when the girl seated near me took my picture]. The guy on the phone wanted my address and email, and I wrote it down for him before I left.
A couple hundred people were already seated in chairs on the grassy palace grounds, and I found a space next to a small woman in her twenties named Sputnik. She was nice enough to offer me fruit similar to a nectarine, telling me it was "very expensive," and we moved closer in towards the action: a Thai ensemble that sounded like gamelan and, behind them, the set-up for the National Symphony Orchestra! Much of the music following the smaller ensemble was corny bordering on plain bad, but I loved every note of it. By then, Sputnik's friend Pichamon had joined us, and she spoke English well enough to explain things about individual songs and even their history. Both Sputnik and she were nurses, and really made me feel welcome; not to mention their enthusiasm for the music- they kept calling it "so bootiful" or "so nice!"- deepened my appreciation for it.
Classical Thai dancers, singers (some of whom really sucked), and an amazing instrumentalist who played something similar to a xylophone were all followed out-of-nowhere by a very non-sequitur Christmas medley including "Silent Night," "Joy to the World," "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas," and a couple others I've thankfully forgotten. A flute player whom Sputnik had seen the week before- and who'd raised her excitement to schoolgirl levels- provided the show's anti-climactic finale. It was like a pan flute- or that flute sound in Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On"- and made the audience go bananas! From this guy's first cheesy note, hands came together like gangbusters. When Pichamon and I went to try and get a picture of the guy walking along the audience's front row, he grabbed my finger and put it over one of his flute's holes. And then, holding the note but not circular breathing, he motioned for another person to do the same. Three more people- including Pichamon- made the note go lower and lower until his final breath and flourish, and the ensuing cheers were deafening, the smiles even louder.
Sputnik and Pichamon walked me to a noodle shop up the street from the train station where we shared a late dinner together, and I even got a ride from Pichamon's husband the twenty-or so meters it took to reach the gate and our goodbyes. A guard helped me find my train car, fast-walking with me all the way to the end, and I found my berth: number 36. I couldn't tell if it was the air-conditioning or the outside night's air making it chilly inside but, in between dreams, I put on a sweater and used my towel as a second blanket, falling asleep once again to the rhythmic clacks of the train taking me to my 27th birthday in Chiang Mai.
The next morning, I walked off the train and directly into the land of touts and tuk-tuks: everyone had a deal, everyone knew of "the best guesthouse" in town, and they definitely wanted me to know all about it. I pride myself on my ability to ignore people, and the guy following me seemed to find the same satisfaction in his persistence; so, I found it easy not to care, winding through the streets of Chiang Mai on the back of his scooter towards a guesthouse which didn't have vacancies anyway. He did a good job, and I hadn't been on a scooter yet!
Julie's Guest House said to try the Whisky Guest House up the road, but they only had a double room available. So, I did what I don't do best: remember. I had seen Rose Guest House from the scooter and knew it had to be nearby- "where" was the question. And thus began my search, and it was a short one: only a block away. The catch was this: no vacancies yet, but they were expecting them within a couple of hours. I spent the time on breakfast up the road of Pad Si Ew, a mixed fruit shake, and some tea. No single room did open up... I sat on the guest house's roof with Martha- a 20 year-old independent traveler from Holland- and a guy from France whose name I soon forgot. I eventually returned downstairs to learn they had a dorm bed available, and that was fine with me. I am staying with three women: Ada, Natasha, and one I haven't yet met.
I spoke with Pai- the Thai employee at the help desk- and booked a trek for Tuesday and a cooking class for tomorrow, then cleaned up and joined Ada and Natasha to try and see a movie at the university. It was more difficult than I thought it would be. Initially, we were taken to what may or may not have been the wrong location- no one inside the food court had any idea what we were talking about! Ada was pretty frustrated and tried to expedite the process by having them write the name of our destination in Thai, but we had only ten minutes until the mystery movie began. We took another cab to the university art gallery, and asked if there was a movie playing. The girl seemed confused so she went to ask someone else; then, a second girl appeared and told us the movie had been cancelled. We asked if it had been cancelled just for today, and she replied "forever," which gave us all a good laugh. At least there was still the gallery to see.
And it was great! For the most part, the downstairs front room was full of students' paintings and drawings of the king and queen doing various things, and some of them were laugh-out-loud amusing. It is amazing how enamored the Thai people are with the royal family; it sucks to live in a country where everyone except ignorant hicks and uber-rich conservatives hate our president. Shit, everyone in the world hates our president! It angers me to think of the retardation required to vote for such a blathering imbecile, yet I've always sort of known, so I shouldn't act so surprised all of a sudden. Anyway, the paintings were adorable. Some had people giving their hearts to the queen, others shown people being festive, smiling while she was somewhere in the picture, and still others had very surreal and almost bizarre themes only a child could imagine. There were other paintings in the back, some of which were very impressive: a pencil drawing executed in exquisite detail of five or six children, and a likeness of the queen done in red mosaic. Upstairs was an exhibit of recent German video work- mainly conceptual or installatory pieces from the last twenty years- and strangely, Nam June Paik had a number of works; does he even live in Germany?
We went to the sunday market and had Pad Thai from a vendor. The conversation was nice; everyone I've met today has been very nice! Unfortunately, my stomach has not been too nice. I have (thankfully) mild diarrhea, and I can only be grateful it's not worse. I am sitting on a riverboat dinner cruise- paranoid that my ass is going to burst- and I don't want to deal with the embarrassment, the uncomfortable tuk-tuk ride back to my guesthouse, nor laundry tomorrow! It is a very serene ride, though, and I'm glad I took it. I ate something resembling a cobb salad (I could've even ordered a cheeseburger if I wanted), some sticky rice, and took a double shot of Mekhong rice whisky. Music plays from either side of the river, and the water is completely still except for the wake our boat creates. It's chilly outside, but by no means is it cold. Oh shit, my stomach is bothering me a little more. I fucking pray we will pull in soon! I am going to try and ignore it... I want this cramp to go away. Why, on my birthday, do I have to deal with this?
Ah, luckily, I made it. I got off the boat and walked comfortably to the bathroom for pure diarrhea excitement. When it ended and I was confident I had gotten the last of it out, I set out by foot, ignoring the tuk-tuks and smiling in relief. I didn't necessarily want to go out, but I didn't want to return to the guesthouse quite yet. I walked through the night market which wound up being five or six varieties of booths exploded out on block after block: Diesel & Von Dutch knockoffs, crappy scarves and bags, wooden animals and masks, candle holders and lanterns, stuffed elephants, and Beer Chang/Beer Singha shirts. I wove in and out of people as I tried to get the hell out of there.
I came to a crossroads: ahead of me were more booths and an endless array of "same same- but different" vendors, and to the right was a bar called "Foxy Lady." Here we go again... You know, it was my birthday: I knew nothing would happen, and why not have a couple drinks- which I wanted anyway- while having something pretty to look at? As I approached, I second-guessed myself. I just wanted to go home and not deal with it. I took out my Lonely Planet and tried finding a map. Two lady-boys next to the club tried talking to me, and I edged closer to Foxy Lady as I looked at numbers and roads of Chiang Mai.
"Hello, come in! Pretty lady!"
"No- I am trying to figure out where I am and find my guesthouse."
I put my book down on the table in front of Foxy Lady and a young girl came to help me look. It didn't take too much more coercing for me to enter and, although I wasn't thrilled when I first sat down, it wound up being fun!
I can't remember whom I told it was my birthday, but the girl who had helped me outside came up to me and offered me her cheek: "give me a kiss, it's your birthday!" She said they'd play a birthday song and that I could have cake; I skipped the cake, but said a song would be fine. She went to tell someone upstairs, and I was brought what I thought would be the only beer I'd order. I had no idea that, in a matter of minutes, I'd have a huge colored light shone on me to reveal my birthday secret to everyone. I blushed and smiled embarrassedly, but was suddenly comfortable when people around me began shaking my hand and wishing me a happy birthday! It was actually nice. There was no nudity at the club; instead, the dancers wore bikini tops and bottoms for the most part while they danced to predominantly crap dance music with a dash of hip-hop added for good measure.
A couple minutes passed, and she sat next to me, smiling as she put her hands on my thigh. Her name was Sue, and she had a cute smile with buck teeth. And it was more than just her front two: her canines on either side stuck out as well, giving her almost a spherical smile. She spoke English surprisingly well and, when she wasn't dancing on stage for me, I learned about her life- and the life of a dancer. The conversation all began because of the rose tattoo she wore on her upper arm.
She got it when she was 16 and in love; that first love gave her a child who is now eight years old and lives with her parents in Chiang Rai. Sue only has a two day holiday per month that interrupts her 7:00 PM-1:00 AM, six-night-a-week schedule. For a month's work- which can entail her going on a date or back to someone's hotel for sex- she gets paid 7000 baht (roughly $125 US), excluding whatever fees she works out on her own with her john. For his part, the john pays the bar 500 baht ($12 US) if she agrees to leave with him; she doesn't have to. And, when I asked if she gets scared when she's out or at a hotel room with such a man, she shrugged and simply said no. There was one time when a guy wouldn't pay her because he didn't come. Apparently, she was getting sore, so she became fed up and left. But, no one has gotten violent with her- at least, not yet.
I had a few more drinks, and walked back to the guesthouse, stopping at a 7-11 to get nori seaweed flavored potato chips. A girl on a scooter offered to take me home: "you walk slow and I go fast," she smiled. So, I hopped on and rode the two blocks I had left.