So much time, but so much more to do...

Bangkok Travel Blog

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Sawadee Krap,

It has been a while since my last post, not because there has been little to report, but because there has been so much going on that I have barely had a chance to sit down and type.  Today is now my 8th full day in Bangkok and, while the city is still very foreign, I'm starting to feel that I know the place like home.  We've been from one end of the city to another now on foot, by sky train, by taxi, by boat, and by bike.  I'm not even sure how many kilometers we've traveled just within the city (at least 15 today by bike) with some long distance journeys to Khao Lak, Phuket, and Chiang Rai still to come. 

The rest of the group joined us last Thursday and we moved into the hotel that we will be staying at for the remainder of our time in Bangkok.  The hotel is quite luxurious for my standards and has a pool, sauna, a room with pool tables, complimentary breakfast buffet, and any other number of other amenities that you could possibly imagine.  It's a very interesting feeling to realize that I am surrounded by all of these luxuries while there are any number of people just down the street who are living off barely anything.  We walk past the prostitutes, the shop keepers, and the illegal refugees from Cambodia and Burma who are begging in the streets on our way here everyday and it is a very strong reminder of just how lucky we are to have the means to take trips like these and how extravagantly we live back home in comparison to many other people around the world.  We could see even more reminders of this as we took a longboat down one of the canals on Thursday evening and saw the shacks and worn down houses that line the murky and highly polluted waterfront that a substantial portion of the people of Bangkok call their homes.

Later Thursday night, on the other end of town towards the Grand Palace, we were able to see the Democratic Spires that were erected as a symbol of Thailand's conversion from an absolute to constitutional monarchy, as well as some of the smaller wats (temples) and other landmarks that dot one of the oldest part of the city.  Swastika, Julie, Thanh-Thanh and I even caught a glimpse of one of the Royal Princesses leaving an art exhibition being held in honor of the birthday of Her Majesty Queen Sirikit (which is today).

Friday saw the official start of our seminar and the first day of "class" that we will have while here in Thailand.  There will only be a few of these official class times as most of our learning experience is set up to be hands-on.  Jim had to leave us early today because one of his twin 10 year old daughters has been in and out of the hospital with an as yet unknown tropical disease, but we did receive a very interesting and informative culture and history lecture from Ketsara (pronounced similar to "Que Sara"), a tour guide that works for the company that helped organize our trip.  After our lecture was over she took us to the Erwan shrine where many Thai Buddhists come to make wishes on a daily basis and ask for guidance in perusing a good and noble life (Jim has said he has made three wishes there on separate occasions and all of them have eventually come true).  I made a wish for somebody else while I was there myself and hope to hear that it has come true by the time we leave here...

On Saturday, Jim had a scavenger hunt set up around the general vicinity of our hotel.  Among some of the activities that we had to do was find people who spoke Thai, Burmese, Hindi, Arabic, Japanese, Chinese, Farsi, and Hebrew and have them write down some words for us on our paper, as well as have some locals translate some interesting and random words for us like "condom", "transsexual", and "Red Bull" so we could find these things to take a picture of them.  In addition we had to take pictures of ourselves eating some of the local delicacies such as locust, and intestine sausages, find a number of local landmarks that we could use in case we got lost, and convince a fruit stand operator, a prostitute and even a police officer to take a picture with us wearing a UW baseball cap.  The reason Jim chose some of these particularly awkward things is to get us out and interact with all of the different types of people who live, work and travel in this area and drive home how friendly and helpful the Thai people will be even in seemingly uncomfortable situations. 

When the long day of hunting was over we were awarded with an incredibly tasty Thai dinner hosted by the school at a restaurant called “Cabbages and Condoms.”  The interesting name is derived from the fact that this particular restaurant is run by a local NGO to help raise money for their charity endeavors.  The entire restaurant has a safe sex and family planning theme and is decorated and furnished with sculptures made of condoms and birth control pills, pictures of various unique condoms, diagrams of safe sexual practices, flower arrangements with condoms incorporated into them and other unique items that convey part of the organization’s mission.  Directly after dinner Jim had me pop into a “massage parlor” down the street where I only stayed long enough to get a glimpse around their lobby and see what the real business being run out of the building was.  There were about 30 girls lined up for selection behind a glass partition that a gentleman could come in and select for a night out.  Not only did this provide me with a look at my first formal brothel but I also got to see how rampant the corruption in this country is as a blatantly obvious illegal operation was going on in a very busy and popular part of town.  Jim said this was just one of the many examples of business men paying off police and local officials on a regular basis to keep their operations running, for over 30 years in this particular case.

The night wound down when Jim took us to a Jazz club near Lumpini Park and after we sat and chatted for a while Tom and I and some of the girls went to the Lumpini Night Bazaar to do some shopping.

Sunday morning we traveled to the weekend market where we had our first “mishap” of the trip and our first real test of just how well this group will be able to get along together for the next couple of weeks.  When we arrived at the market with Ketsara we all split off into different groups to do our individual shopping and were set to meet up at a specific location an hour and a half after arrival so we could move on to the Grand Palace and a few other destinations in the afternoon.  We were supposed to meet at 1:00, but by 1:45 we were still missing one of the members of our group.  At that point we risked missing some of the sights in the afternoon so we had to make the decision to leave her behind at the market and hope that she found her own way home.  One of the other girls who felt comfortable finding her way back to the hotel offered to stay there and wait for her with one of the cell phones while the rest of us took off to get lunch and head out.  About half an hour later we got a call from the girls and discovered that the one we had been waiting for had gotten lost and was rather upset and frantic trying to find us.  Shortly after, when they managed to catch back up with us just before we left for the palace, there was a rather tense confrontation between myself and the girl who had gotten lost as a result of a misunderstanding and unfortunately some nasty words were exchanged.  However, as the day progressed and we had some time to calm down we managed to resolve the situation and clear up the misunderstanding so everybody has been in very good standing since.

The good news about Sunday was that we did have an opportunity to see the Grand Palace, Reclining Buddha, and the Emerald Buddha which are some of the most beautiful and amazing sights I have seen so far.  I’m not even sure how to describe how incredible that these places are or the deep and rich history that surrounds them, so you’ll probably just have to get an idea from the pictures that I will put up and read about the history on your own.  (Or better yet, come visit Bangkok yourself and get a tour from Ketsara as she has an incredible way with words and storytelling that could make any subject seem intensely interesting).

Monday was another day of class but in the afternoon Jim took us to Pantip Plaza where there are two floors of an entire mall that are dedicated to selling pirated movies, music, and software and black market electronics.  The business that went on there was incredibly interesting to observe as legitimate items were mixed in with countless counterfeit products and sales flowed just like any regular shopping mall or department store without a second thought.  The sales process is quite interesting to go through because none of the illegal items are actually kept on the premises, but instead, once you purchase an item the store has a runner go retrieve the product from a secret vault down the street.  Apparently, despite its obvious illegality, the owner of the Plaza is the second richest man in Bangkok and has many police and officials in his pocket in order to keep his extremely lucrative enterprise going.  When international pressure is put on the black market industry and raids are made on Pantip the police give the owner a heads up to shut down the illegal operations for the day and make sure only legitimate sales are taking place.  The most interesting thing probably is, however, that much like the illegal prostitution and street markets that are out every night, the rampant corruption and huge black market that exist in Thailand are just a part of everyday life here and contribute a great deal to the nation’s economy.

Finally, today we took a 15km bike ride through Chinatown and Thon Buri which are some of the oldest and poorest parts of town.  This excursion is another experience that is difficult to put into words as we really got our first true look at how the general populous of Bangkok actually lives.  Small run down houses, cramped dirty streets, surviving everyday on very little…  Yet as we biked through these areas we didn’t see looks of despair or sadness on the faces of the majority of the people that live in these areas.  Instead, they would see us ride by and smile and wave as though they had no cares at all in their life.  I think it is a testament to the Buddhist way of life that even in the midst of what we would consider hopelessness and extreme poverty, that these people can still see the best in life and enjoy the simple pleasures of greeting strange visitors into their neighborhoods.

Furthermore, because today is the Queen’s Birthday and Mother’s Day we got a chance to see a local celebration honoring her majesty and the women in the community.  While we watched the performance in a park our group was getting just as much attention and photos as the speakers and girls dancing on stage.  The people from the neighborhood seemed to be amazed and yet excited that we were willing to participate in their customs and I can only say that I am honored that they welcomed us to join them during such a special occasion.

The entire trip, even just to this point, has been a very eye opening experience for me and I think has helped me to work on some of my issues with stress and impatience that I have had in the past.  Where I have been without any sort of faith for years I believe that I am finding myself drawn even more to the teachings and the way of life of Buddhism that I have been appreciating now for the past few years.  At every shrine and temple that we stop at I have been praying for guidance and participating in the various different practices that define and shape Buddhist life and have come out of it all with some very startling realizations about myself and the world I live in.  Time will only tell what else this trip has in store for me, but if the past week has been any indication, there is nothing but goodness and wealth left for me to take from this experience.

Well, at this point I’m sure I’m droning on so I will leave you for now…

More will come in the following days…

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photo by: halilee