One of the largest reclining Buddhas in the world is at Wat Pho in Bangkok; he’s hard to fit into a picture, though!

It seems I’m quite behind in posting the final entry from Christine and my trip to Asia two months ago, so I’ll bang (heh) this one about Bangkok out pretty quickly, as we didn’t see too much in the biggest city in Thailand. I’m happy to report that the train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok wasn’t bad at all, considering that our second class seats were only $26 a person versus the $80 apiece it would have cost to take yet another plane ride. Although the two toilets per train car were hideously disgusting and filthy, as I expected, the beds and sheets were clean and didn’t have questionable smells. Our 4-bed, 4-person berth space had us and our upper/lower bunks, and an elderly French couple took the other two. Out of character for me, I don’t think I spoke a word to them for the entire 10 hour trip, although secretly I wondered why they were cheaping out in 2nd class instead of 1st – there was a constant stream of railway employees coming to their bunks bringing them paid extras like dinner, more blankets, and little tables.

Once in Bangkok, we took the subway northeast from the train station to the closest station I could find to our hostel. We passed under a large sign while descending underground that said in large letters, “NO EATING OF DURIAN ON SUBWAY, 1000 BAHT FINE”. I can believe it. As was getting to become par for the course on our trip, we staked out a cheap-looking restaurant that offered free Wifi access, got some coffee and crab rangoon (they didn’t mix too well together, but we were starving), and I pinned down the precise location of the hostel on my Android; thank goodness for offline caching. It’s definitely been nice to get 4-5 solid days of charge on my phone while out of the country though; thanks to turning off the cellular network since it doesn’t work over here anyway. It’s pretty obvious what was the most battery-sucking thing on the phone.

Get your shrines here! Good for home or business. Just add flower leis and incense and you’re ready to get blessed

Bangkok was definitely dirtier than Chiang Mai, but it wasn’t anywhere near as polluted as Cairo. We had heard horror stories about how filthy and disgusting Bangkok would be (and it is kind of the popular culture image of Bangkok being a sleazy, glitzy old metropolis) but besides the air smelling a bit funny and some sludgy trash in the gutters, it wasn’t terrible in most of the places that we saw. Of course, some areas were far worse – like the alleys off of the main streets selling every kind of intriguingly pungent meat you can and cannot imagine, alongside some healthy looking and equally weird vegetables, followed by hilariously incongruous vendors of ladies underpants and self-bottled limeade drinks. Mangy looking cats were everywhere in those alleys, looking somewhat worse for wear then their Jordanian equivalents. In the evenings, we saw a couple of kitten-sized rats scamper from gutters into piles of trash at the entrances of alleys like these.

We stuck to the main roads and touristy areas of Bangkok most of the time.

Like in Hong Kong, our hostel room was small and windowless, yet clean. They seemed to have some issues with electricity, as at one point the power went dead for twenty minutes while we were in the shared bathroom showers, but we had encountered the same problems in Phuket as well, so I wasn’t too surprised. But, as cozy as our room was, we were ready to get back out into the streets and find some palaces or temples or something. First, we swung north towards a major traffic circle in a half-hearted last-ditch attempt to find an Aeon ATM (we still hadn’t given up!) but, finding nothing of interest besides some pretty parks, coffee stands, and underwear vendors, we took a tuk-tuk a few kilometers southwest to the Grand Palace – we managed to talk a drive down from 200 baht to 90 baht, although it wasn’t until we were walking back to the curb away from him that he cried out “okay okay 90 baht! Fine fine.” He had been the fifth or sixth one that had turned us down at that price, but I guess even with the traffic he had to suffer through it was still worth it. I slapped him congenially on the back as I paid him at the outside of the palace wall, nodding towards the fat blonde tourists waddling around us with cameras and maps in hand. “Plenty of people here who are probably looking for a tuk-tuk…” He grinned knowingly and laughed.

3 pairs for 50 baht? How can I lose!? As it turns out, Thai hips are different than Western hips.

Unfortunately, the entire complex was closing down in only 45 minutes when we arrived, contrary to what I had read. For the equivalent of $20, it wasn’t worth it, so we meandered around the wall and over next door to Wat Po – I love this about Buddhist countries like Thailand; there’s always “another Wat” right around the corner. It was visible over its walls with tall, multicolored spires in the typical Thai fashion – sharp and pointy looking, with what looked like thousands of facets of cut glass or some other kind of shining ceramic embedded in mortar.

The tourist in his natural habitat

The central shrine to Buddha in the middle of the temple complex

Most people come to see one of the largest reclining Buddhas in the world, and we were no exception. The big fellow is housed lengthwise in a long building in the corner of the complex, and we joined the line of tourists taking off our shoes and stuffing them into bags before going in. I think I heard more American accents here then anywhere else on the entire trip, but I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised – we were in Thailand tourist central here, being right next to the Grand Palace. As we made our way around the Buddha in a loop, admiring his shiny gold form from every angle, pilgrims had baht paper money split up into tiny baht coins (each ones probably worth fractions of a penny) and then would drop them into pots stationed along the outside walls of the building.

Christine provides the scale of Buddha’s feet, each inlaid with mother-of-pearl depictions of the traits of a Buddha

We were tempted to get an official foot massage from the official school of therapy inside the grounds, but both time and money were limited, and we already guessed from the prices that we’d seen plastered in windows near our hotel that this facility was catering to a more cash-flush clientele – the prices were easily three times anywhere else.

We took a long, slow loop around the southern part of the old city, which took us through the flower-sellers section, only about two city blocks that were crammed full of possibly dozens of vendors selling beautiful arrangements of wildly colored flowers, including many that were designed to be hung from car or motorcycle mirrors. I debated buying one for the camaro back at home but figured without water, and in the temperatures of Wisconsin at this time of year, it probably would barely survive the trip, and even then, not long afterward. I’d have to content myself with that piece of souvenier rubber I got back in Malaysia from the rubber tree!

It was dark by the time we reached the train and subway station, the same station that we had disembarked at that morning from Chiang Mai. We were both tired, and after getting as close as we could to our hotel via subway, decided to hail a taxi for the rest of the trip. I had a hunch though – a C-Town mall was only a few blocks away, so I had the taxi driver drop us off there instead. We climbed the escalators up to the top floor, hardly daring to hope…and…success! An Aeon ATM was waiting for us!

Our long search is finally over. $5 bank surcharges no more!

Now, our pockets flush with surcharge-free cash, we decided to reward the mall (who was probably paying Aeon a fee to put their surcharge-free ATMs in there; I’m sure Aeon had a very calculated reason they only put their ATMs in a shopping mall) by buying an all-we-could-eat sushi dinner – Christine’s eyes lit up when we saw the restaurant advertising the bonanza for the equivalent of $15 a person. It was only 9PM or so, but already the mall and the restaurants were strangely quiet; the only other people in the restaurant was another Western looking man and woman. The man looked like he had been enjoying all that he could eat for several hours; there were at least a couple dozen plates next to him. We took that as a good sign and dug in ourselves. I can’t speak for sushi prices on the east and west coasts of the United States, but back home in the Midwest, I would say it’s a pretty expensive splurge to eat sushi until you’re sated, but we definitely had a good time.

Seriously, breath mint packaging company? Seriously?

We slept in the next morning (we’re becoming far too accustomed to free air conditioning) and leisurely ate breakfast at a tiny little Indian restaurant tucked into a narrow alleyway, run by a elderly, straightbacked woman with iron-gray hair and a brisk, businesslike demeanor, who took our orders quickly and then shouted commands back to her sons working in the kitchen behind a screen. It was the weekend, and for some strange reason, the bus we took back to the tourist area of town was free. Christine and I sat awkwardly in the front of the bus, watching the ticket man rove between the seats, giving little postage-stamp sized stickers to people getting on the bus. “He didn’t ask for any money from us or any of these people!” I whispered to her. I paged through my Thailand guidebook, found the word for free, and poked a young man in the side and muttered “free? free?” to him, while gesturing at the floor of the bus. He nodded solemnly, and a nearby woman told us that on Saturdays, the most popular buses ran for free. We had saved a whole fifteen cents per ticket!

The guidebook mentioned a “torture museum” near the Grand Palace area, which Christine was initially loathe to patronize, until I mentioned it was also free. “As long as we’re not supporting the government torturing people, then.” We were greeted by a smiling middle aged Thai man, trim and fit in the way many middle aged military folks are, who escorted us through an amateur group of collegiate-looking film makers, who were filming some actors in a fast-paced argument (at least, it looked and sounded like an argument, but of course we had no idea what they were saying) with the high and mouldering stone walls of the prison as the backdrop.

We were led to a squat and rectangular stone building at the edge of the former prison’s grounds, where we were told that there was strictly no photography allowed. The man stood at attention, watching us as Christine and I walked down the two aisles, peering into the former prison cells, which now contained mannequins in various states of duress – having their hands chopped off, having probes shoved into their bodies, and being mounted on stretching racks. It was a small blessing that the models were crudely made and were expressionless, and bloodless. Christine was tight-lipped, but I reminded her that Western prisons were no different, and that this was merely a prison showing the barbarism that Thailand used to carry out, not torture methods that were still going on. I think a lot of ancient cultures went through this.

The second building was even more grim than the first, but less watched by the military guards. The first room had about 3 dozen paintings on the wall, showing the ancient or prehistoric torture methods, and they had apparently told the painters to use their imaginations freely, because here the victims had expressions of terror or anguish on their painted faces as they were fed to dogs, or torn to pieces, or stretched out on rocks and slowly bled to death. The upstairs had three separate rooms involving the Thai death penalty for the past one hundred years, starting with the practice of government-sanctioned beheadings (ended around the first World War) firing squad (ended around the mid nineties) and the current practice of lethal injection. The small placards in all the room, had neatly typed descriptions of the many safeguards and judges involved with the death penalty process, all in English and Thai, assuring visitors that things were no longer like the other building and the lower floor depicted.

I’m really glad that photography didn’t exist when Thailand was carrying out these torture methods

Our event of the evening was a cabaret show, found via, that promised great choreographed dancing and a free drink. How could we lose! We showed up at the huge Western hotel in the center of downtown and were escorted to our seats by smiling women in the internationally-recognized “cabaret outfit” – huge peacock feather headdresses, sequined dresses, and heels so high and sharp that you could thread a needle with them. The show began, led by an amusing impish character who was our comic MC for the evening, segueing and introducing each new dance routine and lip sync’d song. The backdrops, costumes, and dancing were all quite impressive, especially the young men who performed some incredible break-dancing and acrobatics, all while wearing costumes as varied as full tuxedos, to their underpants.

Our diminutive MC uses a map in his car, to find his way around “New York City” – note the bedazzled fire hydrant

Some of the women were quite beautiful, and although the website said it was a “ladyboy cabaret” I felt confident that at least a third of the long legged and elegant women I was seeing couldn’t possibly be men. The luxurious hair, the smooth, perfectly-angled faces – they looked like models. Some of women were obviously ladyboys, some of them were less obvious but still noticeable, and as I said, a third looked like women. It wasn’t until after the show, as we the audience filed out toward the exit and were coquettishly greeted by the ladies (this being Bangkok, tips of course were appreciated) and heard them speak for the first time, that I realized to my shock that every woman was a ladyboy. The surgery, makeup, and even their body movements had completely fooled me. I even emailed the managing director later on and asked him, to be sure – was the show indeed all-ladyboy and male? It was. I wondered if the cost of medical procedures was just that much more affordable in Bangkok; I’ve seen transexuals in America who simply could not fool anyone. But perhaps it’s just because the Asian bodytype is naturally smaller, more fine-boned, and less hairy than we Western men – the transition is naturally easier. In any case, bravo to the show for casting such a fine group of dancers – if you’re a fan of show choir or “glee clubs” (as they’re more popular called in the USA, thanks to certain TV shows) then definitely look them up if you’re in Bangkok.

Posing with some of the performers after the show – for a tip, of course.

We spent the remainder of the evening in the Sukhumvit neighborhood, which was as close to the seedy and sexy stereotype of Bangkok as anywhere we’d been to before. Bars, liquor stores, and massage parlors offering a lot more than massages abounded in these areas, but we did find a great Mexican restaurant, owned by a friendly Dane who told me that regardless of the sights and smells he’d been confronted with here in his part of town, he wouldn’t trade it for the world – he loved meeting all the tourists and seeing their reactions to Sukhumvit. He also made some great margaritas, and we definitely found our cash reserves close to depleted after several hours of drinking!

It was our final morning, and our flight was to leave at one in the afternoon. We checked out of the hotel, bidding farewell to our friendly and fatherly Pakistani owner and host (who told us firmly that we should contact him if we ever needed a place to stay in Pakistan, as he “owned more establishments in Pakistan than I know what to do with, and good business is done with friendship and camaraderie first, and money second.” On our meandering hike towards the monorail station, we got our last pad thai and iced coffee. We found a little salon directly underneath the monorail station (towering about 30 meters above our heads on elevated tracks) and Christine got a pedicure, and although she wanted a facial as well, when we found that we were officially out of Thai baht, she kindly offered it to me instead, and I got my first-ever facial experience for a mere 700 baht, or about 23 dollars.

In the USA, don’t they normally put circular slices on your face? I smelled pleasantly of vegetables for the rest of the day, though.

We had saved our last few coins for the monorail, which carried us swiftly to the airport, the city stretched out below the tracks. Bangkok was huge, and we had only seen a tiny square kilometer or two of it. I remembered that in Jordan, my cycling friend Brittany had told me about her multi-year experience in Thailand as a teacher – she had lived in one of the small villages but came to Bangkok several times to experience it – now, years after she told me about her time here, I envied her! Thailand is perfectly balanced between accessibility to tourists, while still being exotic to Westerners. How many years has it been since I was an expat? I love my work for the university, but I hate being rooted in place for too long, and I’m definitely not ready to be ‘rooted’ in the USA for life yet. I hope to spend a few more years living and working elsewhere.

You know it’s time to leave Asia when you begin to suffer from Small Chinese Child Syndrome in the Hong Kong airport

My experiences as a tourist weren’t quite over yet – after long layovers in the Hong Kong airport (bless them for providing free wifi for all), Christine and I decided to say that we had “seen Los Angeles” during our 3 hour layover there by taking a bus toward Santa Monica, with the thought of seeing the famous marina, even though it was 9pm and freezing cold (I actually heard in the airport later that it was colder in Los Angeles then it was in Chicago that evening; just our luck). We decided not to risk our flight though, as the bus meandered through the city, so we jumped off at an IHOP instead. As I settled back into my comfy booth with a huge mug of hot chocolate, mixed with coffee, whipped cream, and white chocolate chips, I knew I was definitely back in the good ol’ USA.

No, I take it back – the West Coast is just as weird as Asia. Larry King endorsing…Bagel Water? Time to get back to Wisconsin.