Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Take 3: Shop 'Til Ya Drop

People had absolutely raved about how cheap everything was in Thailand. I don't know exactly how the products are made/acquired/ distributed, but I am a sucker for a deal. Plus, the markets are a huge part of Thailand's culture and financial stability. Tourism and all us money frivalous foreigners can drop 10 times as much as the locals on a t-shirt or a meal without blinking twice. I know it helps out the economy in the end, but it's not really my cup of tea. I definitely got sick of all the shopping by the end of the trip, but it was definitely a cool experience. The plan was to have a Shop Til We Drop Day; and we did just that (some earlier than others).

First, we booked an early mornin' transfer out of Bangkok to the famous Damnoen Saduak floating market southwest of Bangkok. That included a van and "James Bond boat" ride to the actual market. You can see how James Bond-esque the boat was below. He's apparently got a monopoly over the boats on the canals, as they were everywhere.
Unfortunately, the floating market today is a total tourist dominated destination and thus lacks the 'authentic' vibe with the Thai women wearing indigo-hued clothes and wide-brimmed straw hats that it emobied over 20 years ago. That's not to say it wasn't fun, though!
With the tour package we booked, we only got about 20 min actually on the longboat and spent the rest of the time perusing the market stands and trying out some new foods.

Spicy Thai soup, anyone?
Definitely the best mango of the trip, with a side of starfruit.
A longboat 'o interesting fruits and a woman making spring rolls. The view from above.

Oh yeah... one of my ex-roomies from Madison and good friend, Katie Frank, also flew in the night before. We got a few hour nap in before heading out for this in the morning. It was fannnntastic to catch up with her and get some Wisconsin lovin'!
After the floating market, we headed to the most famous weekend market, Chatuchak. In addition to shopping, we were all about hitting up every form of transportation in Thailand possible. So, we'd already done cab, tuk-tuk, walking, longboat, and James Bond boat - so it was time for a public bus and the Skytrain. There are tons of public buses all the time that are cheap and relatively clean. The Skytrain's pretty awesome too - clean, quick and covers a wide area, but not many stops in between the destinations and kind of pricy. Anyway, that's the Skytrain to the left in the pic below.
We got to walk through this big nice park to get there. Tons of cute families and people out and about.
This market was MASSIVE! I'd say the size ofall the WI State Fair market areas put together, x 4. We didn't notice the giant maps that were posted in maybe 4 places in the entire place until the very end... so we spent most of the time checking out clothes, make-up, jewelry, and bags. Ummm, I didn't find much. I was totally gonna buy this sweet big traveler's Pantagonia backpack for $40, but then I tried out the zipper, and it broke. That's when I pretty much gave up on shopping. Back to the food stalls for me!
I love the aesthetics in the food displays. These were fruit shake cups. You pick the one you want, and they add ice and creamy milk and blend it up. Delicious in the 90 degree wheather!
I didn't actually trie these, but they looked cool. They're dried lotus root and okra (veggies) and then some mini sunny side eggs on the left there.
After 6 hours to and from the floating market and another 4 to Chatuchak, Katie and Deana were beat and hit the hay. Gopika and I still wanted to get our shop on (and finished) before heading out of Bangkok not to return again until our flight out. SO, we went to the Lumphini night market. We got to walk through another gorgeous park to get there. I was really impressed actually, that in the middle of so much clutter, traffic conjestion, smog, and litter, there were two fabulous public parks in Bangkok. Nice work.
This night maket was huge as well, but much more ogranized. But, the salespeoples were not having our bartering. Some were pretty angry about it, but it's apparently to be expected and most Thai treat bartering as an art form. Anyway, the material and products at this place was more legit, so I didn't really mind. The food stands were actually permanent too. It was cool to see this woman cook up my tasty, but SPICY, Thai salad. She's picking out the seafood below: crab, shrimp, and fishcakes. Those white things in front are mushrooms. Prettier looking than tasting.

This would've been the BEST purchase of the trip, hands down. I still regret not buying it for Gopika:(
We took some time to take in the night views too. There were lots of "We Love The King" signs in neon bright lights everywhere. Thais LOVE their King (from what I understand), and it's illegal to show any disrespect twoard him.
SO - after 12+ hours of shopping, spending lots of money and having a full tummy of market foods, we finally headed back. I was so done... little did I know there would be similar makets in every other city I went to as well. Bangkok's were definitely the most impressive, on a size scale. Jenny - you'd be in heaven, here:) There was even a giant indoor market with the same stuff, but air conditioned. Had your name all over it!

Monday, January 21, 2008

Take 2: A day in the old capital, Ayuthaya

Since we had a few days to kill in Bangkok before other people got in, we decided to leave for a day. Gopika, Deanna and I decided we wanted to go to Ayuthaya, Thailand's (then Siam) capital from 1350-1767. There are ruins scattered throughout the country, but at a mere 86km northwest of Bangkok, we knew it couldn't be missed. Ayuthaya Historical Park encompasses all the ruins in the area and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

We hopped on the early morning train from Bangkok central station. It was relaxing... for Deanna, who didn't give up her seat for elderly folks the entire hour and a half ride. Jerk:)
It was a beautiful ride though and gave us a good chance to see some country side after being succumb by Bangkok's city scene. People came through (well, shoved and pushed through) the aisles selling fun food - this was my first and last taste of jimblings/star gooseberries. They were so ridiculously sour. The flavored sugar packet it came with cut the bite, but it was still pretty painful to eat. And they had pits in the middle. What do you do with pits?

To get to as many ruins as we could in the day, we rented bikes. Best decision ever. They were a total blast and I think I actually stopped sweating while riding.
We tried to make our way to first and biggest ruins of the area. We decided to park our bikes here and later found out that there was a bike rack like 50 m away. Anyway, this is me reading about what we were looking at. It goes a little something like this:
"Wat Phra Mahathat:
One of Ayuthaya's most photographed sites is on the grounds of this temple. Built during the reign of King Ramesuan in the 14th century, it is home to the Buddha head embedded in twisted tree roots. Despite extensive damage - not much was left standing after the Burmese hordes had finished - the Khmer-style tower is still impressive: it was one of the first built in the capital." - Thailand Lonely Planet
We not only missed the bike rack, but also the entrance to the Wat. We were at the back left corner, but had no idea and were in such awe that we just started hiking around and snapping pictures. Eventually we found the front and paid the proper entrance fee.

This is the famous Buddha head mentioned before. As we walked around the grounds, naive me got into lots of trouble. First I got whistled at by a guard for standing on a pedestal I wasn't supposed to. Then I got whistled at for taking a picture with this Buddha standing up (apparently your head is never supposed to be higher than a Buddha's). This picture was taken by the most hilarious Japanese tourist ever. First he offered to take our picture with it. He was giving me and Gopika very specific instructions about where to shuffle to get just the right shot. My head was apparently much to small so I had to come toward him a lot. After about 15 shots like that, he goes, "Oh, did she want to be in it?" pointing to Deanna. She was just like, "ummm, no it's fine, whatever. Like I matter." This was right after that and one of two shots with Deanna in it. He then made Gopika his personal photographer and had her do the same for him. He had very specific instructions for exactly how she had to take the pictures of him and where Buddha's head should be in proportion and position to him. Meanwhile, a tour bus had gotten dropped off and about 25 people were waiting to snap a shot as well. Priceless.
Sitting Buddha!

Off in the distance you can see two chedi (stupas). These are quintessential Ayuthaya style, which has been identified with Thai art more than any other single style in its time. Many royal temples or palaces for the kings utilized this design. Again, it was built in the 14th century!
This was our "high school senior picture" pose.
It was about midday and getting hotter, so we grabbed a snack and sat on this here bridge with our feet rejuvenating in the river water. Definitely a highlight of the day.

Onto more ruins. Look closely to see all the decapitated Buddhas. We couldn't quite figure out why only their heads were gone.

The Leaning Tower of Chedi?

Outside of this wat were a bunch of kids playing tag... with guns. It was a little scary, but also somehow still incredibly cute.
This was the best treat of the day - it was like a cotton candy filled crepe. The bags are filled with what tastes like cotton candy, but has the texture of really thick hair strands. They're taken from the bags and put into hot off the griddle crepe like pancakes. Mmmmm.

We stopped at a few other places along the way: a market, a huge area being prepped for a midnight marathon with yummy drinks and cool clothes and shoes (that were actually expensive), a semi-dessert with a dead 10 foot phython (or some big scary snake), and Wat Mongkhon Bopit which has one of Thailand's largest Buddha images, a 15th centruy bronze casting.
Then we convinced Deanna to go to one last sight for ruins, Wat Phra Si Sanphet. It's most famous for the line of three impressive chedi. This too was built in the 14th century and used to have a 16-m high standing Buddha covered with 250kg of gold, but it was a goner by the time we got there because those dang Burmese conquerors got ahold of it and melted it down.

Snoop doggy stray dogs were all over the place in Thailand, but they were definitely the scariest in Ayuthaya. These two had a brawl on the tracks and then reclaimed their sides. The sun was setting on our way back. There are rice fields in Thailand, too!

Inside the train.
The perty sunset!

We were planning on eating out at a restaurant on the river that night, but didn't because the train got stalled 45 minutes while we waited for the King (King Rama IV) to cross the road. I'm not saying anything bad about the situation, or him or anything, because to do so would not only be highly frowned upon and shunned, it'd be illegal. Interesting...

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Take 1: Thailand, Baby! We're going to Bangkok!

For a lonnnnnnnnnnnngggg time now (relatively speaking, since I've only been living a mere 24 years and travel dreaming for maybe 6 of those years) I've been dreaming of going to a little country in southeast Asia known as Thailand. My old roomies in Australia had been there and loved it, other travelers I'd met in New Zealand raved about it, and most recently my sister's boyfriend went and had a great time. Actually, the original intent, or desire rather, after college was to teach English abroad in Thailand, but I found very few reputable programs there and pay would allow me to do little other than live and eat in Thailand (which might not be so bad, but I wouldn't be traveling elsewhere).
Anyway, I was basically planning my winter trip to Thailand before I even came to Japan. I talked to other JETs about their trips and the "Thailand Lonely Planet" became my new bible. I did tons of Internet research and even made a rough outline of the trip for a friend (Ms. Katie Frank) that was meeting me there and others coming along. I had my ducks all in a row... or so I thought. I had visions of grandeur and this land seemed to offer everything I could possibly dream of - and more!!! Rockclimbing, hiking, beaching, bathing, food, history, snorkeling, scuba, oh my! My eyes were a glazin'and my heart was content knowing the only place I'd rather than with my family over the holidays was in this fantasy land.
Read on my friends, to see if all my hopes and dreams (for this trip at least) were fulfilled.

The trip began from the minute I left my house. I was headed for the train station, which is a 45 minute walk, with an overstuffed backpack strapped to me , a big duffel bag hanging around my neck/shoulder, and purse rotating from any appendage it would hang from. It was about 45 degrees out, so I also had several layers of clothing, hats and mittens on - which was great while I was standing at the train stations, horrible for the sprints to and from each.
I met my friends Gopika and Carol in Tokyo, after all of the trains had been delayed for a reason we can't explain because none of us speak Japanese. Announcements were made, people got on and off trains, and I sat nervously in an unmoving train in Ueno, Tokyo for 40 minutes wondering if I was gonna make it to the airport or not.
We met in Tokyo, and had just enough time to buy yet another ticket for the last train to the airport (9pm-ish). Unfortunately this last train didn't go ALL the way to the terminal, so we had to get a cab there from the train's last stop. Before the cab could get to actual terminal, we had to pass through what looked like a huge tollway. This is where we got interrogated about where we were going and had to give our Passports and information to the guards. We all had early flights, so we were planning on just crashing at the airport (common practice in the States). Apparently, one of the world's most populated cities' airports closes at night! I still have no idea why or how this is possible, but I do know that we were allowed 'special entrance' and met by a guard upon our arrival at the doors to the terminals. There was lots of Japanese walkie-talkie chatter before we could enter. We were then escorted to the seats you see below, not long after which the lights in the place all turned off, and another guard literally set up a folding chair not more than 10 meters from us and sat there all night. Totally awkward, but at least I didn't have to worry about anyone stealing anything whilst I was sleeping. Not that I got much sleep, the space in between the pleather chairs and curve on the sides makes it pretty inconvenient for catching zzz's... not surprising, since apparently NOBODY does this is Japan.
Gopika came equipped with a full bed sheet because she's weirded out by hostel sheets, or apparently airport chairs. I had enough layers on that I felt alright with it.
Our flights were relatively painless. Check in was easy, food was great, and they even had Christmas decs up everywhere and music playing. We flew China Airlines, and we had a layover, so I kind of just assumed we had a layover in China. Gopika and I were talking about it the whole flight, and as we flew in and all shouting "China, baby!" obnoxiously on the flight. Then, we got into the terminal to make the transfer, we saw a sign that said "Welcome to Taiwan!" We were very confused. "What are we doing in Taiwan? I thought we were going to China? Taipei's not in China?", we proclaimed. This made me study my geography a bit more on the next flight.

This is a map of Thailand in relation to its surrounding countries and the world.

So after a 4ish hour flight from Tokyo to Taipei, Taiwan and a 3ish hour flight from Taipei to Bangkok, we were finally there! This is the Bangkok airport. We got there in late afternoon and then had to wait for two more of the crew to arrive a few hours after we did.

After a wait in the airport, some meet and greets, and some logistics figuring, we got a cab ride into Bangkok (about an hour from the airport). We had no reservations or anything, so we just told the cabby to go to a road I had read about in Lonely Planet that's claim was to "always have a place to lay your head - at all hours". This was us at Kho San Rd.

We had a couple hostels in mind based on the references in the Lonely Planet (LP), but after 3 hit and misses, all the while carrying all our luggage around, we settled on "the next available rooms". We found a place with $6 rooms: they had 2 beds, a "shower"/bathroom (no cold water, no flushing toilet), a sink, and a fan. This was just my kind of place! The most bang for your buck.

We threw down our junk and immediately went back out to the strip. They had tons of shopping stalls (everything from t-shirts to speakers to DVD's to fisherman pants), restaurants/bars, convenience stores, and my personal favorite - street vendors!

My first puchase of the night came from this here pineapple lady. Half a pineapple is stuffed in a bag, smacked with a mini-machete, and then cut into pieces (seemingly magically as it's done all while in the bag, but the bag doesn't break) and served with a long wooden skewer. It was about 70 cents, and delicious!

I vowed to try any and every type of fruit that existed in Thailand. Pretty sure I did. These are the inside of jack fruits (the shell is seen immediately behind it) and a fruit similar to grapefruit, but not nearly as bitter or tainting and thus far superior!
Corn on the cob and seasoned and cooked meat and veggies on a stick.

Soups and noodles galore!

And looky here, we even managed to find some gelatto:)

So, the Khao San area of Bangkok at night was pretty cool so far. Excellent food and drinks, good prices. I approve. The next morning we got up early to find a new hostel (the others weren't diggin' the dirt and it was a good change of pace) and go talk to a travel agent and just finalize our travel details and book some stuff. Like a good girl, I did my research and knew exactly what I wanted to do. Unfortunately, the others weren't quite as sure, and two of our friends had yet to come. SO, we spent the first half of the day in the travel office and ended up with more questions than answers. By afternoon we needed out.

Bangkok was HOT! Probably in the 90's during the day, with the thick smog and crowds intensifying the heat. In comparison to the bitter cold of Japan, I was in heaven. I was just in a very sweaty, polluted, congested heaven. The Grand Palace is a "must-see" in Bangkok and wasn't too far away from our hostel, so we decided to walk it. Maps in hand, we were off.

Unsurprisingly, we took a turn one street too early and found all these people selling... things. It was so random, and I have no idea how any of them make any money, because to me they appeared to be nothing more than trinkets and frankly, crap. But, it was fun to look at none-the-less.
This dude had literally 5 things on his little palate. Just chillin' there, all day, waiting for someone to buy one of his 5 things. Maybe his things really rocked the house and he would bring home the bacon with one mere purchase... my eye's not too keen on the "random things" front.
Okay, back on track and the Grand Palace is finally in view, as well as this massive statue of three elephants in the middle of an intersection. The elephant is Thailand's national animal and has been valued throughout it's history for multiple reasons. Today, the white elephant symbolizes patience and wisdom and is also said to bring good luck.

After going to the wrong entrance first, we made it to what we thought was the front. A guy in a uniform pointed out that neither Gopika or Deanna had pants on, and told us we would have to wait until after 2:30pm to be able to rent them. He conveniently directed us to the two tuk-tuks that were stationed in front of us, grabbed my map and circled some points of interest we could go to for the next couple hours before coming back. We talked the tuk-tuk drivers down to a mere 10 baht (30 cents) for the full 2 hours of transport and went on our merry way.
Tuk-tuks are insane! They're cheap and relatively quick, but the drivers are carazy! We were weaving in and out of traffic like whoa, buses and cars in every which direction and a few motorcycles and mopeds in between, just for fun. I was glad I wasn't driving, but a little scared for my life. It was an adrenaline rush, for sure.
So, first the drivers took us to this beautiful "wat" (temple). It was the first of many I'd see, but it was beautiful and so interesting to just walk around the complex it was on and observe people worshipping.

I learned the 'routine' for worship, which was somewhat similar to visiting a Japanese shrine:
1) Kneel immediately so that you are lower than the Buddha figure and so that your feet are not facing it. Feet are considered unclean and therefore should never be pointed at authority figures or used to open or touch things.
2) Place your hands in a "wai" position (like praying), and bow as low as you can twice
3) Pray and reflect
4) You may offer some money if you choose

I started to see just how common and central gold was to the architecture and design of Thailand. Some was painted on, but many of the Buddha statues had very thinly pounded sheets of gold molded and placed on the statues that was visibly flaking off. I know it was real gold, but no idea what karat or anything.
We walked into those gorgeous doors to find these monks in training, and another (perhaps enlightened?) monk giving advice to people in what looked like an open discussion.
Check out this video from the inside.

The World's Largest Standing Buddha.
We putzed around here for quite awhile before going back to the tuk-tuks, praying they'd still be there. Since there are food and drinks every 2 feet in Thailand, we grabbed what turned out to be delicious flavored ice drinks with tapioca balls on the bottom and got some for our drivers.
We ended up chatting with an older guy that was sitting behind our tuk-tuks as we all enjoyed our chunky drinks. He answered a ton of our questions about the Buddhas and as much as he could about our travels ahead of us. He also requested we help out our drivers by making a few stops so they could qualify for a special gas deal the government was providing for the day.
Well, shoot... they were good dudes, waiting hours for us and all as we perused a wat, only charging us 30 cents for a thrill ride of lives the least we could do was a make a stop with them to get their special ticket, right?
WE GOT PLAYED... after the wat, we got taken to three jewelry stores and the Thailand Tourism Office. I'd read all about this (fairly common "scam" - although I still don't understand how the drivers benefit - we didn't buy anything and paid them next to nothing for the ride), so I knew what was up, and our guys were just smiling the whole time, so we decided to play along. Had some killer rings on my fingers throughout the day, and one lady was trying to bank a sale on the premise that "if you REALLY love your mother, you'll buy her this necklace!". NOTE: I do love you Mom, but I don't think a fake gold pendant will prove it. We then spent another few hours the Tourism place because one of the girls decided to book a trip up north (I didn't get much further north than Bangkok). Needless to say, we did not make it to the Grand Palace this day, but we did have a hilarious experience getting conned by a guy in uniform, two tuk-tuk drivers, and one sly old Thai guy. Nice one, guys, nice one.