Just a Bhat Bus from Big World

According to other travellers, there was nothing to like about Pattaya, Thailand. I told Eric we needed to go there as an approach to the Cambodia border and Angkor Wat. Really, it was because I read it had a Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum and a “miniature world.” The mention of casinos didn’t hurt either.

Pattaya can be a rough town for a girl like me.

Getting there wasn’t much fun. We had a lot of trouble finding the right bus station in Bangkok, despite its being clearly marked and directly across from a Metro exit that we descended … I guess we just like wandering the sweltering streets of Bangkok.

On our belated arrival in Pattaya, we caught a “songathew,” or bhat bus to the hotel. These are little mini trucks where you crowd into the back with 10 other people and then jump out where you want and toss the driver a few baht. I thought they were a great alternative to tuk-tuks because there’s no explaining to the driver where you want to go; the baht buses just go up and down one road.

Our hotel on the famous Walking Street was a real dive. The owner had a parrot with several perches around the reception area. He didn’t speak any English — the parrot, of course. Our room had a window with a stunning view of a concrete wall about 4 inches from the glass.

Pattaya City neon sign

The Ripley’s musuem was all I had hoped. Everything in it was collected by Ripley on his travels in the early 20th century — much of which matched things Eric and I had recently seen. Of course, I’m extremely jealous that Ripley was able to purchase a shrunken head in Ecuador and I could only view them in a museum in Cuenca. He also had an etching of the Seattle Skyline on the head of a pin which, when viewed under a microscope, made me a bit homesick. Ripley himself, as a life-sized hologram who spins a globe on his desk, introduces the museum. Eric and I watched it over and over in wonder.

We got lost again trying to find Mini Siam, the miniature world. We would have given up if not for two things which reinvigorated me: 1) We happened upon a store with ample shade and cold fizzy drinks, and 2) A drag queen mounting the back of a motorcyle across the street threw me a kiss. Minutes later, Mini Siam appeared from out of nowhere. Eric and I slipped in (after a rare lunch at McDonald’s) and were soon wandering the wonders of the world.

Why travel the world when you can see all its wonders here?

A bhat bus back to Pattaya town and the scene was heating up. Blaring rock bands competed with hip-hop DJsin every other bar on Walking Street. We listened to a band do a few pretty good ACDC covers and tried not to watch the balding fat men at every table canoodle tiny Thai women.

Over the music, we hear a short Russian guy yelling into his cellphone, “I don’t care. You just get it on plane and then you get here!” Pattaya really is a town of shrunken pleasures and pleasure-seekers. Where dirty deeds are done dirt cheap.

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White Wat

Image of Wat Rong Khun

I was caught completely off guard by Wat Rong Khun, the White Temple. Brainchild of contemporary visual artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, it is beyond a doubt one of the most singular architectural efforts I have ever seen, ancient or modern. It was like Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, if Clark Kent were a psychedelic warrior and devout Buddhist. Uniformly stark white to symbolize the Buddha’s purity, this was a shocking departure from the typical Technicolor temples I’d encountered thus far. It’s hard to process the mad tangle of ornate tendrils, from the spire and the nested gables of the roof all the way down to the foundation. I’ve seen freezing rain encase the entire city of Olympia in Washington State, where crazy icicles protruded in impossible direction from pretty much every surface. It was kind of like that.

Visitors must first cross a long slender bridge to reach the doors of the main temple structure. Guarding the head of the bridge, a pair of fierce demons raise fantastic weapons, poised to strike down the those who would dare confront them. They had a slick, contemporary feel, like we’d stepped into a black and white manga comic. As we ascended the stairs to mount the bridge, we passed between two pits bristling with hundreds of tortured white hands groping blindly heavenward. The intent was to remind the faithful that one must rise out of this sea of suffering in order to approach enlightenment. Very creepy, very effective.

Image of hand sculptures at Wat Rong Khun

If the lead-up to the chapel was unconventional, then the murals on its back wall was practically beyond the pale. As you step through the doorway, you are confronted with a large, more-or-less traditional Buddha set against a tableau of serene monks and heavenly pagodas. It’s impressive and definitely exhibits Kositpipat’s style, but at first glance it is nothing out fo the ordinary. It’s when you turn around that the fun begins.

Opposite the representation of classical Nirvana is a depiction of pop culture hell. Instead of fearsome birds of diabolical origin, there are Angry Birds from Rovio. Instead of the prince of darkness, you get the King of Pop, Michael Jackson. This wall is crowded with references to Western icons, fictional and real, “evil” and “good”, from Batman to Keanu Reeves. These characters are set against a world in turmoil, earth in flames as seen from space. As you begin to take in more and more of the bigger picture, you finally notice the huge demonic face encompassing it all, with two haunted eyes staring you down. These eyes contain shadowy faces that are easily identifiable: George W. Bush in one, and Osama bin Laden in the other. The symbolism of the murals was explained to me. Inside the temple, the faithful seekers of truth are enjoined to turn their backs on the false heroes and endless phantoms of news and entertainment. I’m not sure Kositpipat is reaching the average Thai Buddhist here, but he certainly pushed my buttons.

The two opposing murals, transcendence versus insipid bullshit, are separated by nothing. Or rather, the two side walls are incomplete, mostly blank. Scaffolding and sketches indicate that work had clearly begun, but no one was working that day. This is where the great secret will be unveiled, the path from the back wall to the front, the way to redemption from earthly illusion and bondage. It occurs to me that maybe this is an installation piece symbolizing “work in progress”, a postmodern ellipses in place of traditional exposition. Oh Kositpipat, I hope this was on purpose.

Chang Mai is Perfectly Pleasant

Image of Night Market in Chang Mai

Chang Mai is a difficult destination to write about, I’ve decided, because I was so comfortable there. Other places have obvious stories — like when a rat unwrapped my chocolate bar and dragged it across the room in Puerto Lopez (I blamed Eric for leaving it half finished on the floor in front of a hole in the wall). Or when we were dumped out of a boat in open ocean in Fiji for snorkelling. It’s easy to write about these times, and it’s really not fair to places like Chang Mai.

In January, the weather in Chang Mai was perfect. 72 degrees and sunny. Not hot and humid like Bangkok. We’re on a Stray Asia tour and just getting to know our fellow tourmates. A great couple — Amy and Todd — got to know us first. We hit it off right away because Todd, though being frim Adelaide Australia, had lived in Seattle in the Grunge years. So we found him to be a real kimdred spirit. On mentioning places like “Greenwood” or “Ballard” he would throw his head back and shout “Yes!!”

Stray booked us into a very nice place where we had to remove our shoes in the foyer. This was a first for us. I was perplexed and consumed with the thought, “but I NEED my shoes.” They also gave us a tennis racket with which to electrocute all the mosquitoes in our room ala “The Green Mile.” Like in the movie, most bugs didn’t die right away and lay stuck to the racket burning and twitching for an uncomfortably long time. And without even a last meal.

Day one — I want to rush out and see all the sites listed on a hand-drawn map of Chang Mai that I bought on Ko San Road in Bangkok. Unfortunately, I have just started taking doxyclycline and Eric and I have become what he calls “doxy vampires.” Four minutes in the sun — with SPF 50 and we begin to sizzle like Angel on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (season 3 when he tried to commit suicide by sunrise on Christmas Eve).

In addition to burning skin, I also have constant naseau. But we still decide to venture out and see a few wats. All are covered in gold and flowers and butterlies and are something out of a Persian dream. One temple is rigged with wires to its highest points and what I’m sure are New Year’s explosives on the wires. They’re set to come out of the mouth of the dragon.

On wat three or four, I come out of a public bathroom (feeling naseaous) and a very perky woman approaches me and asks if I would like to see the local sites. I’m still pretending not to be sick at this point and agree to a modestly priced van tour of Chang Mai.

Our first stop is Umbrella Village where they make, paint and display tons of lovely umbrellas. We had seen these umbrellas all over the city in front of cafes. Then we went to a lacquer store, where they showed us the many steps involved in making lacquered plates, vases, etc. Lastly, a stop at a rug store, because our driver admitted she would get a gas coupon. The rug store was interesting, though, because it was run by Indians from Kashmir. We told them we were soon heading for India and they gave us a chai and we had a nice chat.

We then requested a trip to the big attraction in Chang Mai: Wat Doi Suthep. A striking golden temple atop a mountain. I had fully intended to climb the stairs to the top, but the doxy just wouldn’t allow it. Instead we took the cramped “elevator” to the top. From there we saw the lovely temple and a great view of Chang Mai.

That night I was able to fet down a burrito at a nearby Mexican restaurant. We felt obliged to visit as, of all the folks in Chang Mai, we had seen Mexico the most recently. It was pretty authentic, with even muertos on a shelf next to our table. Like going anywhere in Thailand, we were handed a flier for a Muy Thai fight tonight. First men, then women, then children.

The other kids from our tou started reporting in. Shane and a friend had had massages done by female convicts (being rehabilitated). He had a thief, but his friend had a murderer. The murderer was better. Amy and Todd had ridden elephants.

We went with the group to the night market and we all found the same stall with crispy noodle soup. The staffers were completely overwhelmed. Eric found a stall selling fried bananas but he refused to eat any but fresh ones and waited patiently as they fried new ones.

Overall, Chang Mai was extremely pleasant. Maybe it’s OK nothing memorable happened.

Templed Out

“Templed out” is a phrase I encountered very shortly after our arrival in Thailand. It’s essentially a state of architectural exhaustion; a fatigue induced by overexposure to Southeast Asia’s most abundant cultural resource: the Buddhist wat. With a practically endless variety of sects, styles, and influences, any attempt to see them all is quite possibly an impossible endeavor. It could take a lifetime, yet so many tourists fall prey to their impulse to at least try. The sheer number of “must see” temples can create a certain pressure on the average schedule and many a hapless backpacker has found their days strung together with little more than temples and sleep … with no end in sight.

Keep off the lawn

Keep off the lawn

About Birds and Cages

The Lay’s potato chips out here might be Spicy Lobster flavor, but it’s still the taste of globalization, and that’s OK with me. This being my first time in Asia (southeast or otherwise), I didn’t know what to expect, and as a general rule, I’m always trying to keep my expectations in check. Various friends and acquaintances had sufficiently built up the image of Southeast Asia as exhilarating, chaotic, and alien. I did not come all this way to be disappointed simply because it wasn’t “oriental” in the romantic sense. That being said, I was not expecting the bird traps.

Precariously suspended by block and tackle, high atop an otherwise derelict-looking lamppost or flagpole was a birdcage. Both Rachel and I stopped and studied it for a hard minute as we were out exploring in the Banglamphu neighborhood just north of the Grand Palace. We found it along one of Bangkok’s many canals, right where it feeds into the Chao Phraya River, and for some reason it seemed conspicuous, even against the dense clutter that typifies the Bangkok side street. We had just begun to verbalize our curiosity when, at that very moment, a trap door snapped shut on the cage. I did a double take. A little bird had been snared by some industrious urban bird trapper.

On closer inspection via camera zoom, the trap turned out to consist of two compartments. The main cage contained one bird, it seemed, but there was a smaller apparatus hung off one side, and this contained another, more animated bird. I began to construct a theory of how it operated. The bird in the big cage was perhaps a lure. The smaller cage to the side seemed like the actual snaring device. A hinged door would be tripped when a passing bird, drawn to the company of its comrade, would unwittingly alight inside the snare. While I zoomed in with the camera to inspect it further, Rachel followed the trap-pole down its three-story length and identified a number of larger cages that appeared to be for staging the birds. Clever.

A week later we were in Laos. I was caught off guard again when I saw dozens of teeny tiny birdies in fist sized woven baskets for sale at an ancient Wat (Buddhist temple). Evidently, it’s common practice to release these birds to honor the Buddha in some way. You’re buying their freedom, essentially. I’m no expert on Buddhism, but if I understand anything, this is a marvelous example of a practice that is internally consistent and completely anathema to its own doctrine. Buddha likes it when you free birds, and there’s only one way to get birds to free.

In Luang Probang, we saw a striking mohawked black and white sparrows-looking bird with a red blaze on its head. It was hung in a rickety cage in front of a dingy gold and silver shop, darting from one side of the cage to the other. It was a beautiful specimen, and clearly not accustomed to captivity. I fantasized about freeing it, snapping the thin bamboo bars with a quick firm squeeze of my kung fu grip. The fantasy continued to its logical conclusion, a bi-lingual shouting match with the owner, me eventually getting tackled and tossed in the type of prison where the inmates alternate between rioting and making viral dance videos. Head hung low, I walked on by.

We’ve since noticed caged birds everywhere in Thailand and Laos. The abundance of butterflies took on a slightly ominous hue, the implication being that the birds would eat more butterflies if they weren’t in jail. It suddenly seemed natural that they would be for sale in the many markets and street bazaars (both day and night varieties). In the eyes of the street merchants I saw cunning and ingenuity. We passed a squirrel in a cage once and this took on a whole new significance. Little buddy, Buddhist offering, or lunch? Either way, it’s got my respect. Bangkok is a city built with money but encrusted with communities who survive by their wits — even live off the land. In the interstitial spaces, the hunter-gatherer persists in the metropolitan wilderness.

Our Secret Room in Bangkok

Image of Mysterious Thailand

Lots of skin is peeling off of my neck, rolling into little beads when I run my palm stiffly across it. I suspect this was New Zealand sun at work, but at first I thought it was a small squadron of mosquitos lunching on my nape. The mosquitos are circling me like sharks, which makes me a touch nervous out here in Dengue country. Which is to say, Thailand.

We arrived in Bangkok after a full day commute. We woke up at 4am Auckland time in order to catch a 7:30 flight to Melbourne, followed by several hours layover (including a luggage snafu where our luggage was stuck on the other side of customs, the airline having neglected to issue the temporary Australian visa yet we were supposed to transfer the bags to the onward flight ourselves), followed by the long haul to Bangkok international and the overpriced (and hassle-free) taxi into the city. We calculated it was approximately twenty hours, and yet we went to sleep in our windowless air-conditioned closet at a reasonable 10:30pm local time.

The room itself was reasonably spacious. It was more like a secret room you reached from inside of a closet. The entry to the hostel was at the back of a nameless restaurant and up two flights of stairs. Through a non-descript door past the hostel bar next to the pool table there was a closet sized space partitioned by a tattered blanket hung from the ceiling. Behind that blanket, there appeared to be some kind of a living space, though I never peeked behind the curtain to look. I just knew there was a local kid living there by the inscrutable sounds of Thai television, the hazy outline of a bed visible through the fabric, and the occasional halting guitar strums of a novice (or terrible) musician. To the left of the partition was another door non-descript door with the words “Room #1” fixed to its surface with scotch tape. Behind that door was us.

The space consisted of a bunk bed (a non-standard tiered design with the bottom bunk queen sized underneath a narrow single-size top bunk mattress) and a step-up shower where you might expect a closet to be. No window or any opening other than a defunct fan duct opening above the shower. The actual air conditioner was a modern apparatus mounted across from the bed where the wall met the ceiling. It was highly effective, aided in no small part by the airlock-like quality of our closet-foyer. We fell asleep that first night to the muffled laughter of gap-year European co-eds and the soft, painfully inept strains of folk guitar.