March 24th, 2015
The morning threatens to become as lazy as the preceding ones, my trip through Thailand slowly disintegrating, not that I was that motivated to begin with. The room disappointingly turns out to be more expensive that I expected, some 700 baht a night as opposed to 580 baht, and it’s not as if the room isn’t tiny. Hua Hin in the end is also far less memorable than many would like to have you believe, but such are the travails of traveling. And it’s not as if I am not about to face much more substantial expenses that could have been entirely avoided had I not been more attentive.
One last occasion to walk past the massage parlours and have the same women lazing In front of the glass windows calling to me in as sultry voices as possible. A handful of the older heavily overweight European men are out for their morning jaunts, their slightly formal clothing and awkward gait making them somewhat out of place. The street is the usual maze of vendors, every day a slightly different cocktail on the road. As compensation, one is faced with the sublime indulgence of being able to pick and chose any imaginable street food.
I opt for the double packets of sticky rice stuffed with what appear to be blueberry-like fruit in banana leaves and another pack of deep fried rice flour with coconut. The Thais have innumerable sweets, although most I don’t find particularly appealing, as the flavours are not particularly refined, largely just bland and sweet. A number of sweets are just gelatinous and gooey, thickened with rice flour, while most are variants of heavily sweetened candied fruit with rice incorporated in some fashion. The food bought on the street doesn’t involve a huge financial commitment, although for what you are getting it isn’t really dirt cheap either, considering it involves mostly starch and sugar.
Some inexpensive and very tasty curries are offered at a stand with precisely one table.
An older Flemish man I talk to on the street has had his share of disappointments here, having purchased and attempted to sell an apartment in Bali with great duress, then gone through another raft of hassles here. He has just bought a space in Antwerp, where he is from, and is not spending any money here again. You don’t speak the language, have no legal rights, it’s not a free country anyway, and you are a continual target for getting fleeced – and no, Thailand is not really that a great country. It’s hot and sunny, and there are some decent beaches, the people are generally nice, but that may not warrant coming here for anything more than a brief vacation. He shakes his head at the extent to which foreigners buy into the country’s mystique …
I buy the ticket for the noon bus departure to Bangkok. Better to buy it now than arrive last minute prior to departure and find that there are no seats left on the bus. A minor melodrama arises on the road in front of the bus office when a very corpulent older woman with flamboyant sunglasses and short yellow dress confronts a female motorcycle taxi driver for wanting to overcharge her. It looks comical, except I am the worst at rebelling at perceived price infractions. And yet somehow I think that most locals would probably not pay that much attention as to how much they are being charged.
The bus is somewhat late and we all pile in. Surprisingly, there is only a handful of people on the full-sized bus, which just can’t be very profitable to run all the way to Bangkok. I religiously follow even the most mediocre scenery by staring continuously out the windows, looking for any kind of interesting details, but just as on the way down, most of the scenery running up to Bangkok includes utterly uninteresting urban sprawl, the area around the highway even worse than what would be seen around the train line.
I enter into a conversation with the older man in front of me, who I initially can’t imagine would be even vaguely interested in my erratic musings. Robert’s dry and thoughtful poise gives away his home state of Minnesota, although he worked for the army in North Carolina for 20 years before retiring to Silverton, Colorado, a bucolic enclave in southwestern Colorado with a tiny population, and set in the shadow of the towering San Juan mountains. He concedes that the area is beautiful, located near the iconic four corners of the country, a respite from the extremes of hot and cold, even though the area gets large amounts of snow, unlike the parched desert country to the south.
His graduate studies focusing on the history of southern Africa led to a position as military intelligence researcher in Africa, a man who would have been on the inside of many a controversial situations in the beleaguered continent. ‘Beyond the defense of nominal cold war-related interests, the U.S. was never that interested in Africa’ he tells me.
Once in Colorado, he took up long distance trail running and focused his passion for writing about the sport, then with broad ranging travels around the world, expanded his palette of interest. Now firmly ensconced in old age, he is a committed writer, although the vagaries of Africa don’t figure importantly in his potential subject matter. After 37 years of thinking about the never-ending troubles of the region, he tells me wryly, he is happy to be in Southeast Asia, a region that is firmly on the march towards a more constructive future.
There is really nothing redeeming about the landscape we pass by. The roads are wet, indicating that it actually rained, not a bad thing at this time of year. I think this is the first time it has rained in Thailand since I came here in January. It was only supposed to be hazy, but what the heck. It hadn’t rained in Hua Hin, but was overcast in the last few days, hence it would have been pointless spending time on the beach anyway.
My trip to Thailand has been so underwhelming that I am actually relived to be back in Bangkok, even though I can’t really stand the city. It is drab, characterless, its charms contrived, overwhelmed with population, and sweltering. But the rains have actually cooled the city down, much to my relief.
At the bus station, Robert and his Thai wife bring me to the counter where I buy a ticket for the trip to the Victory Monument, and they accompany me all the way to the minivan to make sure that I don’t get on the wrong one. Seated inside the van, waiting to depart, the young man seated behind me confirms that we are going to Mo Chit, which is in fact even better.
The van hurtles along the intimate dilapidation of a side road rife with commercial, residential and open fields, the highway running eastward characterized by a sense of openness and space, although closer to the Chao Phraya, the densely placed and weathered facades of central Bangkok materialize. The river appears through the grey overcast haze, and we are quickly ground to a virtual standstill in thick traffic, irrespective of the driver’s deft tricks. He turns northwards, so I guess we may be venturing towards the Victory Monument after reaching other destinations, although I would prefer going to Chatuchak station, which is on the same line as Sutthisan.
It is almost a relief to be driving through Bangkok as occasional interesting moments appear in the urban sprawl. Although above all what confronts the traveler is the enormous military bases, through Dusit and also much further to the north, allowing the sickening reality of this absolutist, military autocracy to sink in. Some traditions are best left well behind …
We keep driving, weaving slowly through the turgid traffic, although something gives me the feeling we are not heading to the area of Mo Chit station, especially when the driver veers westward and continues for some distance before pulling into an expansive and dilapidated bus station. As we get out, I turn around to my travel companions, asking ‘Mo Chit’ expectantly, and now just getting blank looks. The young woman motions that she will help me find the metro station, but as we weave through the endless parking stalls and morass of market stalls, it becomes increasingly apparent that we are not anywhere near Mo Chit station, nor does she really have any idea where it is.
On one hand, I am grateful for the fact that she took the effort, but am quite upset that my friends at the southern bus terminal went through the pains to find out which minivan I should get on, and someone simply didn’t think it important enough to give them a clear answer as to where the vehicle was heading. What becomes apparent in the resultant fray is that the moment things go wrong here you are really on your own and helpless, given the spoken and written language disconnect.
It turns out that there are ancient buses that provide connecting services to nearby transit services, and once we lumber out of the lot, it becomes clear that we were in fact at a bus terminal in the general area of Mo Chit. Some confusion arises as to where the Chatuchak metro station entrance is, but finally, hours after arriving in Bangkok, I am in the metro en route to my familiar stomping ground.
I depart from the correct entrance, on the southeast side of Sutthisan station, and the Ratchada Point hotel is right there. A handful of rooms are available at the introductory rate of 700 baht, larger rooms with small windows, the stench of glue from the renovation work happily dissipating. The young attendant is slightly annoyed by my continued critique of the rooms, as I want a double bed, I want a room with a larger window, and it has to be quiet.
After running out of choices, I revert to the initial selection, but upon paying and requesting a wifi password, am asked for another 100 baht. Paying extra for wifi? That would have flown five years ago, but free wifi is virtually universal in Thailand now, and the neighboring hotels offer the same rates with inclusive wifi. He stalls, then looks at me with crestfallen disbelief as I pick up my bags and leave for better options in the neighborhood.
That said, while the Bangkok 68 is cheaper, the rooms are smaller than at the Ratchada Point. And after having now spent a substantial amount of time at the hotel, I have to say that despite the apparent confusion at the front desk, they do offer a very professionally run hotel. Lumbering with my heavy packs in the sultry late afternoon, I am very concerned that the Bangkok 68 may not have any space – but it definitely does, in fact, I am shown a number of different rooms, none exactly what I am looking for, but the slightly small and artful 824 on the 8th floor will do admirably for now.
March 26th, 2015
I migrate suitably late to the market across Ratchadaphisek. It’s a pleasure to see the hub of activity, the modest vendors fastidiously overseeing their humble wares amidst the confusion of stalls. And yet as I wander from one food stall to the next, something gives me the feeling that they are not particularly interested in serving the farang, either now or later. It seems there is always someone ahead of me or they are distracted – or are closing their stall for the day.
The soup stand I ate at yesterday is closing down for the day when I arrive. Their neighboring cohort points me down the passage to a competitor, who goes through the motions of assembling sprouts, chopped onions, some stewed pork, cooking some more meat, adding broth, and momentarily cooking some noodles, the result amended with what looks like green salsa, ground peanuts and fresh sprouts, effectively a delicious and very hot brunch meal.
A woman preparing salads at another stand finally finishes with her other orders, then decides to close, again leaving me out of luck. Another woman intervenes on my behalf when I protest, and her assistant prepares a salad for me, but not before the woman who intervened on my behalf decides to convince me not to select the spicy version. Finally, when the crepe maker is finally finished with his order, he shows me the empty cylindrical container of batter – no more for you, either!
I am tempted to just keep eating as I approach the subway, but the metro system has a strict ‘no food’ policy, never mind the ridiculous security check, which involves pointing a flashlight in the direction of your backpack to ensure that it’s contents are sure to not provoke any disaster.
I considering stopping for a coffee at some trendy cafe in town, and perhaps discovering a little more of the city prior to continuing back to the MBK mall. I find a place online on Soi Sukhumvit 16, just south of Sukhumvit MRT station. However, once I have extracted myself from the morass of the intersection and into the alley, I find myself clutching to the side of a prototypical central street of Bangkok, a winding alley with continuous traffic.
The expensive vehicles driving through are wide enough to make simply walking along this narrow road a danger. Luxury condo towers loom overhead, the bristling spires crowding out edifices of a humbler and more modest nature. Contrived luxury restaurants appear momentarily along the street, then nothing but walls and brief glimpses of manicured and completely uninhabited courtyards, a scene from the generic international city overtaken by luxury residential developments in which no one actually lives, the only people to be seen on the streets the impoverished and economically marginalized peons that have no place in their own country.
The coffee shop in question appears in a gated complex, the yoga-and-coffee-themed establishment shrouded in a mystery that does nothing but propel me further down the street, further into this frigid moneyed wonderland. But beyond continuing to battle the obdurate traffic that bedevils the city and contemplating the money games that hold this city hostage, I am left with a feeling of emptiness and desolation.
At the far end of Soi Sukhumvit 16, a claustrophobic, ghetto-like environment with cramped, dilapidated housing, vehicles and small vendors’ booths crammed into far too little space, a stark contrast to the imposing gated condominium communities with manicured gardens I have just passed by.
But who lives here? Much of the signage is in English as well as Japanese, and then I see burqa-clad women in droves, which would suggest money from the Middle East and the Gulf – although it would seem somewhat ironic for Arabs to choose the debauched likes of Bangkok to reside in.
There is no sense of ambiance, character, or relationship to some living local culture. Land development has metamorphosed erstwhile organic components of the city into tracts detached from any kind of local reality, and deprived the local community of any kind of lifeblood.
The intent of entering this area to begin with was just to have a coffee in some possibly atmospheric establishment, but at this point, I just want to get out the area and will happily skip the coffee – not that I had any illusions about the Sukhumvit area to begin with.
And then the not particularly memorable coffee places I do enter want the equivalent of $4 CAD for a cappuccino – keeping in mind the average person here earns $10 to 20 a day, which is utterly ludicrous, chronic profit-taking on the backs of the poor.
I rush back to the BTS station, perversely almost looking forward to getting to Siam Square. Bangkok is all about the lesser of evils, frequenting one terrible area to avoid the vagaries of a worse one.
Now on to the business at hand – looking for a new camera! I am considering buying an Olympus EPL-7. What would be compelling about the camera would be the idea of becoming familiar with a new digital photography medium. And yet using the camera would involve changing lenses continuously, which is what I disliked about using my Nikon D5000 camera. Furthermore, the optics would be mediocre, given that the lenses are slow and hence not be that good in low light.
But who knows – I may be surprised!
Today I feel considerably more self-assured about the journey through MBK centre, even though I was dreading going. In a surprisingly naturalistic interlude, the pale golden sun appears behind a ceramic blue cumulus cloud to the west. I leave the shopping mall with a solid sense as to my options. Even though I haven’t bought any camera, I am feeling upbeat and motivated!
March 27th, 2015
It takes some degree of focus to get out the door in the morning, but I heroically manage nonetheless, rushing to the market on the far side of Ratchadaphisek for a quick soup, grinding to a halt at the vendors that line the roadside, the wild array of enticing foods difficult to walk by without getting utterly distracted. Thinking about coming back to the hotel later on in the day with little in the line of eating options, it would be best to buy some of the exotic treats on display, such as what seem like rice puffs (I am assured they are not) spiced with curry and dried lime leaf, sweetened, beet red banana chips, in addition to a plastic tray of rice flour balls vaguely flavoured with peanut. The soup is delicious and inexpensive, and yet again I have to remind myself to not track into the metro station stuffing food in my face – the fact that you can’t eat food here illustrating the more regulated side of the society.
The route to Sarasak BTS station is now quite familiar, as is the last jaunt to the Myanmar embassy. The trip into town is time-consuming, and risks having me arrive at the embassy when it has already closed. Visa applications are accepted between 10 and noon, and then picked up between 3 and 4, or something to that effect. If I recall correctly, they were a bit lenient as far as closing the visa application section at noon was concerned, but as my luck would have it, I can just see arriving moments after they close the doors. Even better, the door to the visa section is closed, although a second entrance is open.
Inside, a few people mill around the bare bones environment, with some military types seated at the row of tables running along the wall. I am told it is Army Day today in Myanmar, hence the embassy is closed. I can’t restrain the ridiculing remark about the Myanmar army not needing a holiday, but it doesn’t win a very sympathetic reaction from the uniformed man. He is more accommodating when I tell him how much I love the country, what I have seen and where I would like to travel to, positively lighting up when I tell him I would love to visit Mrauk U in his home state of Rakhine. But in the end I am not going to get a visa today – I can come back on Monday, or try to get a visa online …
The next destination is Nik’s on Silom Road. Pramuan Road connecting Sathon with Silom provides a hub for office workers eating from the deliciously varied roadside buffets, with nary a trace of the budget hotels and massage parlours that infest the less desirable regions of Silom. I slow down to inspect the culinary possibilities, even though I have absolutely no intention of eating at the moment, an activity that can grind any day to a halt in this fine country, or for that matter, the entire continent.
It doesn’t seem remarkably hot today, making the city so much more bearable and even enjoyable to spend time in. I really would love to be taking pictures of the urban setting I see around me, but I have no camera – hence the urgency of the day’s mission. Without a live mapping ability, I am reliant on stumbling into storefronts and trying to get an idea as to where Nik’s, the Nikon representative could be located, but the effort becomes somewhat stillborn with the language barrier and the fact that buildings are simply not consecutively numbered – if they are numbered at all.
Rather than continue southwest on Silom, I need to head northeast, I am informed in one shop, and finally, not far from the putrid stench of the canal and the BTS line, I see the Pullman hotel and Nik’s, featuring vitrines with the latest Nikon products laid out along the walls of the spacious air conditioned store, tellingly empty.
Without looking at my camera, the friendly man behind the counter tells me it would probably cost around 15,000 baht to fix the camera, and at least three weeks – hence no incentive to use his service as an alternative to the official Nikon dealership in the Empire Tower on Sathon road.
A mediocre burger at the Japanese-style MOS chain further into the commercial confusion to the east follows, the prices rising and ambiance dropping, although at least there are a lot of office workers to give some authentic character to the proceedings. The canal running along the BTS route is lined with ambulatory food vendors selling the typical dizzying array of food stuffs, the cut fruit particularly varied and enticing, although I am focused on getting to my next stop, involving climbing back to the lofty heights of the Empire Tower and drop off my camera at Nikon.
When I finally reach an attendant in the queue, I can only hope that they don’t charge me even more money for the work that they initially quoted, that the repairman in Hua Hin didn’t pillage the camera, and that it works impeccably when I get it back – naive optimism can have debilitating repercussions in life! Life is full of risks, and traveling accentuates those risks …
There are two malls I had wanted to explore prior to returning to MBK centre and putting my money down for a camera, Pantip Plaza and Fortune Town Centre, at least as per the recommendations of the various sites I trolled through online. Along the elevated plaza leading to Chong Nonsi station, I skip the enticing cut fruit vendors, since I don’t want to have to tromp down the steep concrete staircases to the street and then back up again. Surviving Thailand’s heat makes it essential to cut back on any unnecessarily outdoor physical exercise!
As the train rounds the bend towards Siam station, I am surprised to be apprised of a large temple complex to the north of the line and an expansive field of green amidst the sea of concrete towers. I am almost shocked to pass through Siam BTS station and not have to swim through an avalanche of people for once. Changing trains and then rounding the corner towards Ratchewi station, the Sra Prathum Palace complex appears to the right, another leafy expanse jarring the eyes away from the almost shocking amount of concrete around us.
From the raised train platform a sea of somewhat depressing-looking edifices mark the horizon, a uniform view of characterless apartment buildings, some of gargantuan proportions. On the street level, the Co-Co Walk proves to be a small complex of hip bars and eateries, with a very posh-looking coffee shop located in the corner, the small glass panes encased in the wooden walls and draped with trailing vines emanating from the plethora of pots lining the artful interior and exterior of the establishment, a tiny staircase leading from the cozy main floor to the equally intimate second, one of the few places I have seen in the city that could credibly claim to mimic a traditional French bistro.
Trudging along Thanon Phetchaburi reveals a side to Bangkok that is far less glamorous than the area around Siam Square to the south, ostensibly less expensive, and riddled with smaller and less ostentatious malls, eateries, hotels, the occasional complex attempting to unseat the singularly unimpressive streetscape. But the aesthetics of the neighborhood are of little interest, as my destination is Pantip Plaza, one of the homes in the city of cheap electronics. I steel myself upon entering, promising not to lose my phenomenal sense of equanimity which quickly becomes unhinged in the relentless, claustrophobic retail sprawl of Asian shopping malls.
Surprisingly, the atmosphere in the mall is quite relaxed, limited to an obviously dedicated crowd in addition to farang looking for last minute deals on electronics, and local geeks trolling for even more electronic equipment. The vast majority of shops are dedicated to personal computers and ancillary products, gaming understandably being the focus of the goods on sale. There are a few camera shops on the upper levels, although some of those are too small to engender much credibility.
I wander up and down the aisles of each of the five or six levels of the mall, scouting for camera shops. I enter the few larger shops, reviewing the prices of the merchandise on display, and ask for prices where they are usefully not displayed. Fortunately, I have a fairly clear idea to what I want, my focus being the Olympus PEN EPL-6, a recent but not state-of-the art vintage of the manufacturer’s arty rangefinder line
Next on my hunt for a new camera is Central World, probably the shining star in Bangkok’s inner city shopping district. As much as I don’t like malls, Central World is probably about as nice as it’s going to get. What’s more, I feel a strange sense of relaxation and accomplishment today, particularly given that I am closing in on a new camera, and will finally be able to continue my onward journey, wherever that may be to.