Tuesday, January 5, 2010


Last month I took a trip to Thailand and Laos, where I traveled for two weeks with my friend Allison from Colorado. We spent our first couple of nights staying on Khaosan, Bangkok's backpacker street. Khaosan street is a carnival of blaring music, tourists and costumed vendors hawking things. In the evening, street performances of break dancing, fire dancing and limbo under a burning pole spring up.

A friend told me that Khaosan is like a zoo. Foreigners go there to see Thai people, and Thai people go there to see foreigners.

I'd guess that you can buy anything on Khaosan. Half a block from my hotel a street booth sold fake IDs including California drivers licenses, international driving permits supposedly issued by the United Nations, international student cards and press passes. They could take your picture and print your personal information on the card while you wait. I passed these up and instead visited a Dr. Fish foot spa where the fish feasted on my dead skin and callouses, particularly my peeling Balinese sunburn.
The food on Khaosan is unremarkable backpacker fare, and everything is international. While drinking a mojito at an outdoor restaurant I watched as a Thai woman, working in a shop that sold dreadlock wigs and Bob Marley hats, painstakingly created dreadlocks in a white tourist's hair. Nearby, a human billboard advertised a Mexican restaurant, and a street vendor sold Latin American style hammocks. Other street vendors wore beautiful Southeast Asia hill tribe clothing, but I suspect it's just their work uniform. Scantily clad women in Heineken outfits advertised a restaurant. Khaosan has a 7-Eleven, a McDonald's, a couple of Subways, and many drunken backpackers from all around the globe.

In Bangkok we watched Thai dancers performing at a shrine,
and we visited the beautiful Wat Po, a Buddhist temple with many golden Buddhas including a 46-m long golden reclining Buddha which fills a gigantic building.
Wat Po is full of beautiful glass-decorated stupas that house the cremated remains of wealthy people.

Wat Po is also famous for its excellent massage school, and I enjoyed a Thai massage, which is done while wearing loose fitting clothing, and involves stretching as well as deep massage. The massage therapist used her arms and legs to maneuver me into the stretches.

We also visited the Grand Palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, which housed the royal family from 1782 until some time ago when the royal family moved to a new palace. I had never seen so much glitter and gold before. I can't imagine that the Wizard of Oz's Emerald City could have been any more sparkly! We also saw a Thai masked dance performance.

A highlight of my visit to Bangkok was a spectacular dinner with my two United World College friends, Amporn and Sally, and Sally's husband Narut. Sally arranged a really special dinner at Chakrabongse Villas, a former palace on the banks of the Chao Phraya River. The palace is owned by a woman who is the granddaughter of a Thai prince. A century ago, the prince was set to inherit the throne of Thailand until he committed the misstep of marrying a Russian woman. His granddaughter has converted the palace into a beautiful villa overlooking the river with beautiful sunset views of Bangkok's most picturesque temple, Wat Arun. We were able to enjoy a private dining experience at the palace because the granddaughter is a friend of Sally! Thank you so much, Sally and Narut! I hadn't seen Sally and Amporn in 17 years!
The next day I took a bicycle tour, which started with a tour of a local market where I saw more kinds of hot peppers than I had ever imagined!

Above and below: Mangosteen

I hope this guy's mask was protecting him from the bird flu!

We tried mangosteen fruit, spring rolls and spun sugar wrapped in crepes.
Then we rode over several canals which once were part of the major transportation network which earned Bangkok the moniker "Venice of Asia," through crazy Bangkok traffic, and through a slum under the freeway. It was an area of crowded unpainted plywood housing which reminded me of migrant farm worker housing I've seen in the U.S. Many of the people, especially the children, came out to wave at us and shout "hello" as we passed. In addition to shacks, there were several tiny stores operated out of people's homes and a daycare in the slum. We then crossed the Chao Phraya River on a longboat, together with our bicycles. Once we arrived on the opposite bank we were no longer in the city but rather in an area of fruit orchards.

Here, we cycled along a narrow cement path raised 3 to 4 feet above the ground in a marshy area. Our guide cautioned us against falling off the path, as she had done while learning to bicycle on those paths as a child! We rode past small farm houses, a small temple, and banana and other fruit trees. We saw a couple of green water snakes and were greeted by many locals.

After the tour I took Bangkok's efficient new elevated Sky Train, and then a river taxi back to my hotel area, avoiding Bangkok's traffic jams. Allison is so cool! In our hotel room, she was pumping water. Rather than buying plastic water bottles, she brought a small water purification pump to Thailand, so that she was able to drink tap water!

The next day we would leave Bangkok to travel through northern Thailand to Laos, but I'll save that for another entry.

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