Thailand, Fall 2008
Monday and Tuesday, November 3-4, 2008
This trip to Thailand got of to a rather inauspicious start. On Monday morning, everything was fine until I got to the Eugene airport and checked in. First, the women at the counter said I was on a flight to Palm Springs. Wrong! When I said so she then said I was checked in to Los Angeles. Wrong again. I explained that I was going to San Francisco then on to Bangkok. Finally, she said that was correct but when she printed out my boarding passes it showed that the flight from San Francisco had already left almost o hours earlier. My confidence in United Airlines was fading rapidly.
Eventually, she then found the correct flight to Tokyo's Narita airport then on to Bangkok. However my flight to S.F. was delayed by a couple of hours and the same flight scheduled almost two hours earlier had not taken off. If I waited for my flight, there as no way I could make the connection. She offered me two options; I could get on a 6am flight the next day or try for stand-by on the earlier flight to San Francisco. That flight was fully booked so there was little chance I would get a seat and because that flight was also delayed there was no guarantee I would get to San Francisco in time to make the connection to Tokyo. Feeling hopeful but not at all confident, I choice the second option.
Waiting at the gate I heard my name called over the PA and was told me that I was on the flight. Hooray! Now if it would only leave at least by the time my scheduled flight was supposed to, I should be ok. Luck was with me and it did leave in time and we made good time to S.F. On landing, I had about 35 minutes until the next flight was due to leave. The problem was that I had to get from the domestic to the international terminal and, once again, go through security. Fortunately, the security lines were short and I got through quickly. I made it to the gate just as they were starting to board. Whew!
The twelve plus hour flight to Tokyo was uneventful and, with the aid of modern pharmaceuticals, I was able to get a few hours of sleep before arrival. Little did I know that the connection to Bangkok was even tighter than the earlier one had been but, once again, I made it with. At last I was on the final leg of my journey with seven more hours of air travel to go. Again, I got a couple of hours of light sleep on the plane.
At Bangkok's Savarnabumi (pronounced sa-WANA-boom, and widely referred to as "Swampy" because it was built on a swamp) airport I got through customs quickly then faced about fifteen nervous minutes waiting to see if my luggage had followed me. Most of the other passengers had taken their bags and gone when I saw the distinctive yellow and black striped luggage strap and my enormous suitcase flopped off the belt almost right in front of me. Home free, or so I thought.
The taxi driver tried to overcharge me with a high fixed price but I insisted he use the meter and saved myself a few dollars. We arrived at the tiny hotel where I had reserved a room. I hauled everything up a flight of stairs to the second floor reception desk but there was nobody around. I pressed the indicated call button several times and called out for anybody. I even walked up a floor and down a floor and called out again to no avail. It was now about 2am local time. As I was about to give up and try to find other accommodations, a woman in her pajamas came up from down stairs. She spoke no English but it was obvious what I needed. She banged on a door and called out a name for several minutes. Giving up, she went up the stairs and was able to rouse someone who apparently dialed the number of the person who was in the recently banged door.
The phone rang and rang and the original lady, who I now know to be the hotel's maid, continued to bang on the door and call out a name. The phone again rang and the woman continued her pounding. Eventually, another women came to the door, looked at me and asked if I was Peter. She gave me a key, told me a room number, and said we would finish the check-in the following day, Wednesday.
This had been a long day alternating with mind numbing boredom and stressful anxiety but at last it was over. I unpacked only what I needed, showered, and fell into bed for much needed rest.
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
Despite my biological clock being out of sync with the local day-night cycle, I got a pretty good night's sleep. After getting cleaned up, I went downstairs (I'm staying on the fifth floor) and finished checking in. That task completed, I stopped at a 7-11 and picked up a new SIM card and some prepaid minutes for my Thai cell phone. I have to do this on each visit because the SIM cards expire if not used and it's been sixteen months since my last visit. I called my friend Barry and we arranged to get together later for lunch. Then I went to Took-Lae-Dee (literally, Cheap and Good), a 24 hour lunch counter style of restaurant in the nearest "supermarket."
Happy and sated with a breakfast of chicken fried rice topped with a Thai omelet I walked several blocks to my local tailor, George where I ordered three shirts, though heaven knows I have plenty from him already. We sat and chatted for over an hour they I went back to the hotel to relax and do some email until lunch.
At lunch, Barry and I were joined with several women who had worked with him at his first university teaching post in Thailand. It was fun to watch them all pull out pictures of their children and grandchildren. Afterwards, Barry and I stopped by his hotel to pick up some clothes that needed to be mended then walked to our favorite tailor, George.
I left to buy some bottled water and tangerine juice to keep in my refrigerator. The bottled water is an absolute necessity here not only for drinking but also for brushing teeth. The tap water is not even close to being suitable for drinking. I even try to keep it out of my mouth when I shower.
The tangerine juice merits special mention. The word delicious is insufficiently superlative to describe it. And it is available cold and freshly squeezed in bottles everywhere fro street vendors for only about sixth cents (20 Thai Baht). The quality and variety of fruit and vegetable juices here puts the selections available in U.S. supermarkets to shame. In the U.S. I like to start my morning with a glass of orange juice to wash down a handful of vitamin pills, capsules, and gel tabs. Though the O.J. I get at home (Minute Maid Country Style) is very good, it doesn't hold a candle to the tangerine juice here.
Later, I met Barry and a couple of his friends for dinner. Fatigue and the time change were catching up with me, so I left early and went back to my hotel where I showered and started watching a little television. I was soon nodding off so I shut off the TV and the lights and quickly dropped off.
Thursday, November 6, 2008
This was to be a shopping day so I got an early start with breakfast again at Took Lae Dee then caught the Sky Train to MBK, a huge six-story shopping mall. Alas, I was too early and it wouldn't open until 10:00 and, I was told, most shops wouldn't be open until about 10:30. I walked to a nearby jewelry factory and shop with a couple dozen workers toiling to produce some really attractive pieces. Not interested in purchasing anything, I left not long after arriving. On he walk back to MBK, I got some fried bananas from a street vendor. They were hot and delicious though a little greasy.
Walking around MBK I felt tired even though it was still early in the day. I think it was a combination of jet lag, the heat, and not being in particularly good shape. I bought a little sweet pastry that looked for all the world like a small taco. It was like nothing I've had or seen in the U.S. but it was tasty. Perhaps because of that snack and the earlier bananas, I was not hungry for lunch so I skipped the food court and went back to the hotel.
I got in a few hours of work on my computer before dinner which I took at my favorite Thai food restaurant, Suda. It was a great meal and I capped it off with sweet sticky rice with fresh mango (kow nieow ma muong). This is the peak of the mango season and they are fabulous. The combination with sweetened sticky rice and coconut milk has to be experienced to believe.
Friday, November 7, 2008
I got a late start but was well rested and I headed out toward the subway station, stopping briefly to see George. My shirts were ready and I told him I'd pick them up later on my way back. My destination this day was Bangkok's Chinatown. It is not too far from one end of the subway line. Arriving there with my map in hand, I stood at a five-way intersection trying to figure out which way to go when a local gentleman asked what I was looking for.. I explained and he told me that it was a poor time to visit Chinatown because everything interesting was closed until evening or the weekend. He suggested a couple of temples. Unfortuately, he told me, the one I really wanted to see, Wat Pho (pronounced watt po), was closed for two days due to the funeral of the King's sister. Actually, a huge complex comprising the royal palace and several surrounding temples would be off limits to the public because of the presence of the royal family.
Wat Pho is one of the oldest in Bangkok and is the site of the gigantic reclining Buddha and home of the famous school of traditional Thai massage. I haven't yet had a massage here, a lack I plan to remedy soon.
Instead, I was directed to some different temples, one of which is the original temple in Bangkok. I had a tuk tuk whi would take me wherever I wanted to go for only 50 Baht (about $1.60). He waited for me while I did the tourist thing and took pictures. While at the temple, I met a fellow from Belgium who told me that my next stop, the Thai Export Center, was a great place to by jewelry with gemstones and this was the final day of a special event where individual tourists were allowed to buy up to three pieces at what is usually available only to wholesale purchasers. In fact, because jewelry purchased for personal use is not taxed the same way as if it were for resale, there is a huge tax savings. So much, in fact, that he had paid for three trips to Southeast Asia by selling to a jeweler two of the three items he bought on each visit and they split the savings between them.
At the Export Center, I spent quite a but of time getting a lesson in judging the quality of sapphires. Top quality rubies and sapphires are mined in Thailand and, at least according to the sales woman who is also a designer, the sapphire mine is played out and is closing.
After a lot of soul (and wallet) searching, I purchased a white gold and sapphire ring. It was resized to fit me then delivered to my hotel around dinner time. It came with a certificate of authenticity with the size of the gem and quantity of gold. Did I just get taken for an expensive ride? I don't know but I plan to have the ring appraised on my return. In the interim, I remain optimistic.
Well, that wraps up chapter 1. Stay tuned and I will continue in subsequent missives.