Thailand, Fall 2008
Saturday, November 15, 2008
This morning I skipped having breakfast and caught the subway to Chatuchak market. I have described the experience of this market in an article from a previous visit so I won't go into it in great detail here. I don’t know how many acres it covers but it is huge, with thousands of vendors along cramped aisles. There is not room to walk two abreast and often one has to squeeze past people stopping to look at or purchase something. Sometimes I was the obstruction but I tried, whenever possible, to move into the booth. Booth is not really a good description because it implies a temporary structure but these are well defined areas within a more permanent series of buildings with no walls defining inside from outside, only a roof and with minimal walls separating one space from another.
It was hot and crowded but vibrant and alive. Interspersed between vendors of everything imaginable, are food and drink sellers from simple ice chests with canned and bottled drinks to actual cook to order restaurants with signs in Thai indicating what they are offering or no signs or menus at all, just pots of steaming meats and vegetables of one kind of another. Some things are easy to identify such as grilled meets and sausages as well as fried bananas, spring rolls, and other sweet or savory items. I got a couple of spring rolls. They were cut into bite sized portions and serviced with a sweet and spicy dipping sauce and with a bamboo skewer with which to eat them. As they say here, aroi (usually pronounced a-loy) or delicious.
Mostly I purchased gifts for friends and family but got a few small items for myself. I find that I am more conscious of an item’s weight than its cost. I think I will put some of the heavier things in carry-on for my return trip so as to stay under the weight limit for checked baggage. I think it will be close.
The subway station at Chatuchak market is an interchange with the Sky Train so this time, I took the Sky train to the stop nearest the Central World shopping mall in hopes of seeing my friend Madee who works in her family’s furniture store in this very upscale location. It turned out that she was working at their other store in the MBK shopping mall not too far away. They called the other store for me and I arranged to visit her there.
To get from Central World to MBK, I had several choices: I could take the Sky Train, I could take a taxi, or I could walk. I decided to walk. A very nice addition to the Sky Train system is what they call the Sky Walk, an elevated walkway below the trains. A short description of the Sky Train structures. Each station is comprised of two levels. The lower level, approximately thirty feet above the traffic below is where one purchases tickets, obtains information, and patronizes any of numerous vendors with stalls or fixed storefronts.
About twenty feet higher is where the trains make their brief stops. At the more crowded stations, people form actual lines in designated locations. When the number of passengers is fewer, no one bothers with lines. When the doors open, the exiting passengers are mostly allowed to leave before the new passengers board. When there are open seats, there is a rush to obtain one, everyone else hanging on to a bar or strap to maintain balance during the rapid accelerations and decelerations.
Ok, that’s more of a side trip than I was intending so now I’ll return to the Sky Walks. These are extensions of the lower station levels with bridges going off to one side or the other into hotels or shopping malls. These are very convenient, especially as these places have elevators or escalators in air conditioned spaces which is much nicer than climbing steps in the heat and humidity.
I took the Sky Walk from Central World as far as it went toward MBK, descending to street level to complete the trip. The streets around MBK are large and instead of crosswalks, they have walking bridges so I climbed one last set of stairs and crossed directly into MBK where I went to the fifth floor and met Madee. We sat at one the elaborate tables sold in their store and chatted for about an hour over tea brought by one of her employees.
She said she’d like to take me to dinner on Monday if I was free and we arranged for her to call me. I caught the Sky Train back to my local station and headed back to the hotel to relax a little before dinner.
Dinner was again at my favorite restaurant, Suda. I arrived just as it started to rain and, of course, had not thought to carry my umbrella. The place wasn’t packed when I got there but it filled up fast. I was seated along at a larger table and offered the rest of it to a trio of farungs (foreigners like myself) when no other table was available. (By the way, farung is not only the word for foreigner, it is the name of the fruit we call guava.) The three were all employees of Proctor and Gamble here for some kind of event. Two were from Cincinnati and one from Bavaria, Germany.
A couple of months ago, the sister of Thailand’s king died and after a traditional morning period, they had three days of official funereal events. They were televised and I saw a few minutes of it. There are large photo posters of the departed princess all over Bangkok and Thai people were expected to wear black and white in respect for several days. Over the last weekend, actually Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, no alcohol was supposed to be sold or served in stores, restaurants, or bars. Observance of the prohibition was spotty but I saw a couple of police going down the street checking to see if anyone was being served. I suspect that the consequences of violation were a “fine” paid directly to the policemen. That seems to be how most infractions are handled here.
Monday I had big plans to visit Wat Pho, the home of traditional Thai massage teaching and the site if the gigantic reclining Buddha. I took the Sky Train to Thaksin Bridge station (named after the deposed prime minister). At the bottom of the stairs it was partially flooded from an overflowing Chao Phaya river. I was able to get around the water but had to walk on sandbags to get onto the dock. The dock, being a floating structure, was not subject to the high water except that the ramp to it, which in the past has gone downward to the dock now went up and the ceiling was so low I had to crouch to get onto the dock itself. No big deal, just strange to this westerner used to not having to be so inconvenienced.
On the boat, I got off at the eighth stop, the one closest to Wat Pho only to find that to get to shore one had wade through knee deep water. Everyone was taking off their shoes and rolling up their pants. I had a better idea and jumped back onto the boat as it was pulling away and went to the next stop which had no such problem. It was not so far that the walk was a problem so I headed back north (the river flows south to the sea). I was approached by a Thai man who asked where I was going because it was obvious that no one else was going my way. He worked at the palace across the street and was helpful and told me he wanted to practice his English as he often had to answer questions from westerners. He told me that Wat Pho was closed for the day because the Queen and her son, the possible future king, were in residence following the funeral events the previous weekend.
He then asked my next destination and when I told him I was going to Parntip Plaza, he indicated a bus parked in front of me which, he told me, was not only going there but was free. This was an odd day filled with alternating good and bad luck.
Before we got to Parntip, we passed Central World and I decided to get off there to see if Madee was at her store. She was going to call me that day and I had forgotten to take my cell phone with me. Alas, she wasn't due in until later so I stopped at a Japanese hamburger restaurant for a burger and fries. The fries were ok but the burger was terrible. From there I took a taxi the rest of the way to Parntip and spend a couple of hours in this gigantic techie toy store.
Later, back at my hotel, I had messages from both Madee and Barry. Barry's call was to ask me if I wanted to come to his class the next day, Tuesday. How could I refuse. He is a master showman in front of a class and it's really a treat to watch him work.
Madee's message said to meet her at a restaurant a couple of Sky Train stops away so that's what I did. When we met, she told me that we would be joined by Nut, another of my friends from her term studying at OSU. I was delighted that Nut was there. The others, I was told, could not join us.
Dinner was terrific and Madee ordered. I told her that spicy was ok and the one dish she suspected might be too hot for me was, to me, fairly mild. Maybe I am getting used to the hot and spicy Thai food.
Tuesday morning I arose earlier than I really wanted to and had breakfast at Took Lae Dee. Lately, I've been getting the omelet stuffed with pork, mushrooms, and tiny eggplant a little larger than a pea. This is served with rice to which I add a wonderful chili sauce that is something like catsup but made with chilies instead of tomatoes. It is spicy and tart with just a little sweetness. It's available in Asian food markets in the U.S. but I have a supply I brought home with me from my last trip here. I may need to add to it this time.
I met Barry outside his hotel and we took a taxi to Chulalongkorn University, Thailand's top institution of higher learning. This is the school where the students I had met studying at OSU were from. There we met Dr. Jack Bailes, another professor from Oregon State who teaches accounting at Chula (everybody uses the shortened name). Barry had some preparation to do so I worked on this account then later went to lunch with another American I met who ate at the school cafeteria. It was actually like a somewhat less fancy shopping mall food court with prices about half of what they are at the malls. So my lunch was about sixty cents plus another forty cents for iced tea.
Barry eschews such places now in preference for the more opulent surroundings of the five star restaurants where he can usually be found. I thought the food was good and you can't beat a meal of stewed pork and gravy over crispy noodles for under a buck.
This, it turned out, was the last day of class before the final exam. Barry surprised them all by not starting class with his usual quiz. Over nearly three hours of the class (with two breaks), he covered several topics starting with relative currency valuations (Thai Baht versus the Dollar, versus the Euro, and the Dollar versus the Euro), how they are expected to change over the next couple of years, and the forces that cause the changes.
Barry had earlier told the students that the five top scorers for the term would be taken to his favorite restaurant for lunch the following day. (Here's the great segue.) I joined them at that five star lunch buffet lunch as did several other students who wanted to come and paid their own way. The buffet, I must admit, was fabulous. I had several cooked-to-order lamb chops, shrimp tempura, Massaman curried chicken, and several other delicacies. The desserts were no less wonderful and I have never had crème brulé so good (I had two!).
After lunch I went back to my hotel, where I had earlier checked out, collected my luggage and was picked up by a driver to take me to my friend Rudi's place just outside Pattaya. It was just under a two hour drive and he took me right to the door. This is much better than schlepping my heavy suitcase and two smaller bags to the bus then having to call Rudi to pick me up from the bus station in Pattaya. Sure it cost about $32 versus about $10 for the bus but it was worth it. Barry stayed on in Bangkok for one more day to wrap up some other tasks.
That's where I will leave this chapter.