Our first stop on the whirlwind tour of the great city of Bangkok was the old palace and temple Wat Phra Kaeo, information pills implant right in the heart of the city. Our driver dropped us off at the square, opposite the Wat. Before we could take ten steps, we were swarmed by a gang… of pigeons. Immediately, some kind Thai folks were thrusting small bags of hard corn kernels into our hands. The birds seemed well accustomed to this ritual, and we were all instantly covered in pigeons. They were on our arms, on our heads, on our hands, and more and more kept clambering for what little free space remained on our bodies.
The kids were overwhelmed and overjoyed at this experience, and their laughter was infectious. It seemed like everyone around us was sharing in the unique beauty of what was transpiring. Theresa stepped back and tried to get some pictures of it, a difficult task, given the abundance of flapping wings and corn flying everywhere. Every time our bags emptied out, the kind folks watching at the sides would thrust several more bags into our hands. Before we had time to refuse, the pigeons were on us, leaving us with no choice but to feed them, lest they decide that humans might be tasty as well.
After the third or fourth refill, it started to dawn on me that maybe this wasn’t a charity ‘feed the pigeons’ project hosted by some well-meaning NGO, or even an extension of the Buddhist spirit of giving. I tried to pull the kids away, but the pigeons and the corn-people made this a nearly impossible task. Not one to be daunted, I plunged in (receiving two more bags of corn) and escorted the kids out of the hubbub to the safety of the sidelines. The corn-people still kept trying to give us more corn, and their English did not seem to have gotten as far as understanding the words ‘no thank you’.
As we started to walk away, the ringleader of the cornies, a stooped elderly woman, stepped in front of me and demanded 1000 baht. This was about 33 dollars Canadian, and certainly enough to buy a farm feed sized bag of corn. I’m sure what we had gone through would have made a jumbo sized popcorn at the theater, which might run about 7 or 8 dollars in Canada, and even then I feel thoroughly gypped. Sure in my knowledge that the woman spoke fluent English (even with the words ‘no, thank you’ missing from her vocabulary), I indignantly explained that if she had wanted some money for the corn, she should have negotiated a price first. Her only reply was a glare and an outstretched hand, and I felt the weight of a crowd watching the interaction. There were no other tourists in sight, and suddenly, I felt very conspicuous and alone.
Realizing we had been had, and noticing the condition, or more specifically, the lack of her teeth brought on my first world emotions of guilt and pity, and I felt as though I should at least pay for my foolishness. I gave her 500 baht, and again gave her a stern scolding, reminding her to negotiate a price first. Because, you know, it’s not like she had ever made that mistake before… Or would again.
Ultimately, the value of our experience went far beyond the value of the corn. We had, for a moment, been swept up in the joy of a unique and beautiful event, summed up only by the beauty of a badly paraphrased Haiku:
Taxi to explore downtown Bangkok: 1800 baht
16 bags of corn: 500 baht.
Being swarmed by pigeons in downtown Bangkok: Priceless.
Our first experience in an all Thai restaurant was disappointing, as we were so used to the Thai dishes we knew and loved at home. But when the menu is all in Thai, and the pictures convey little information (oh, that looks like… meat… and noodles… in sauce), you do what you can. We expected little from the small restaurant in the heart of the market district, and were still disappointed. None of us felt comfortable with eating the sloppy and questionable plates that arrived, and seriously started to contemplate vegetarianism as an option. If only we could tell which dishes were vegetarian.
At least we got some ‘nourishment’ from the Coca-Cola. Not that we ever drink Coca-Cola, but the guidebooks said not to drink the tap water, and Coke was all they had. Surprisingly, Coke is a great refresher in the heat, and lifted our spirits beyond the few bites of rice and noodles we ate. At least the meal was cheap. $4 later, we didn’t feel as though we had lost too much to the experience.
Our next stop was at the river’s edge, to take a romantic ride through the canals of Bangkok in an old fashioned longboat. At least, that how it had sounded in the brochure when we booked our tour. I pictured a man with a colourfully adorned vest and a fine mustache, singing love songs while pushing gently through the river with a long pole…
Our driver led us down to the dock, having arranged everything with an as yet unknown man, and we stepped onto a luxurious floating restaurant, complete with live band and waiters. For a moment the Titanic came to my mind. (For the opulence, not the hitting-the-iceberg-and-sinking factor. We had little chance of spotting an iceberg in the 38 degree heat, although we would have welcomed one.) We were led across the boat, straight through to the other side, and down a gang-plank. It was there that our floating chariot awaited.
The style of longboats in Thailand dates back hundreds of years, with ornate carvings along the sides of the boat, and some features, such as the curved prow, reminiscent of Venice. The V8 engine mounted on the back with a propeller shaft coming out of it seemed to be a somewhat modern addition, but, hey, how loud can an engine be?
As it turns out, a V8 diesel engine without a muffler can be pretty damn loud. There is just a pipe coming out of the exhaust manifold, and the coolant lines are fed directly to and from the river. If you have any friends with a truck with no muffler, stand beside them as they rev their engine to about 5000 rpm. You might get an idea of what the sound of the longboat is like. There is little worry of collision, as anybody will hear you coming for miles. The fellow with the long pole singing “That’s Amore” was nowhere to be seen. We were at the point of no return, so we clambered aboard, and found our seats. On a boat that can hold 20 people, it was nice to be the only ones aboard, so we looked forward to some redeeming factors of the trip.
After crossing the wide Chao Phraya River, the boat ducked into one of the many small canals that crisscross the city. It is true that Bangkok is the Venice of Asia, with whole neighborhoods living, eating and shitting on the water. As we gracefully floated noisily careened through the narrow waterways, we were confronted with ramshackle homes, perched on stilts, half falling into the water. We got the sense that this had been the way of it here for hundreds of years, that all of the progress of modern society means little to the lives of these people.
And then there are the spirit houses. Despite the deeply ingrained Buddhist beliefs, Thais hold an older superstition regarding the spirits that dwell throughout the land. They believe that when you move onto a property, you must also make a home for the spirits who dwell there to live in, lest they choose to live in your domicile and haunt you. By this logic, the spirit house must be nicer than yours, leading to an industry in the creation of beautiful miniature temples, which are daily adorned with fresh flowers, food, and incense. In the case of the river houses, they were usually far outstripped by the beauty of the accompanying spirit house. Every so often, a rickety shack would have a temple or a mansion for a neighbor, and then there was no telling what degree of opulence might follow in home or otherwise.
In a city like Bangkok, where 8 million people center on one river, chances are the river is not going to be a very pretty or sanitary thing. We were feeling a little concerned every time the spray from the water hit us, for who knew what lay in it, from feces, to bacteria, to noxious chemicals, or the occasional dead dog, floating belly up. Despite this, swimming in the canals is a popular pastime. I can only image that these people have super human immune systems, from the continual exposure to any number of pollutants and bugs.
At one point, our boat driver slowed down, and we began to notice some large catfish swimming around the boat. At this point, I recalled a story from my youth, on a boat trip up the Mississippi river, where and old man told me of how he had lost several fingers during the great depression by using his digits as bait for the catfish. Careful not to repeat his mistake, I kept my hands well within the confines of the boat, and told the children to do the same.
I noticed that the catfish had turned into a swarm, now creating a thick layer so that the river seemed to be a carpet of fish. As I turned to look at the other side of the boat, I noticed a basket hanging beside the boat just within easy reach. Peering into the basket, I noticed several loaves of bread. How perfect! Something to feed the fish! I started to pull a loaf out to examine it, and once again, the thought crossed my mind that some generous Buddhist had put the bread there to allow people to feed the poor starving river creatures.
My good-willed naiveté was short lived, as the boat driver called out and motioned to the shore. My eyes went from the basket, to the string attached to the basket, to an old toothless woman on the end of the string sitting on the shore beside a pile of bread. Quickly putting two and two together, and remembering my lesson from the pigeons, I asked how much. As the driver was replying (something like 100 Baht, or $3.33), Theresa was shaking her head. I think she was still annoyed at us getting suckered by the pigeon people, and that brought me back to reality.
There is a code of ethics in traveling that warns of corrupting a social or environmental organism by influencing it with your own set of values, and creating new survival paradigms. An example would be beggars in third world countries. Surely our first world affluence can benefit them, and guilt often makes us want to contribute directly. But if you give them money, it will teach them that they can survive on handouts, and they will become dependent on begging for a living. There are obviously situations and circumstances where a person or community might truly need the money due to adverse circumstances, and out of charity or pity, you might give it to them, but oftentimes, you are contributing to or perpetuating a cycle of dependency that is unhealthy to both parties.
There are ‘native’ tribes I have read about who live with fairly modern conveniences, (i.e. electricity, TV’s, PlayStations and blue jeans) who have made their village appear to be quite traditional on the surface. When the tour buses roll through on schedule, the natives shed their blue jeans for their traditional garb, and perform dances, etc and sell their wares to the tourist. Both sides might benefit from this arrangement, as the tourists feel good for supporting the ‘tribe’ and get some great ‘authentic’ souvenirs, and the natives get money to survive and feed their addiction to first world culture. But whether or not that is a healthy addiction, I will leave up to you, dear reader, to decide.
As we watched the bread lady reel her hook back in, bait untouched, I realized even the fish had become dependent in this dance, as the school would otherwise be scrounging the river instead of being condensed in one spot. The problem with dependency, from an evolutionary point of view, is that it creates weakness. You are only as strong as what you depend upon. Diversity breeds resilience.
We walked away from our boat trip wet and shaken, feeling as though we had just had a once in a lifetime experience. We had seen a side of the city that didn’t really care if we were there, and had seen a broad swath of the conditions humans attempt to survive in. Life may flourish in whatever niche it may find, and the tropics seem to bring this out in humans as much as in the flora. We are only as strong as what we depend on…
As we saw more and more of Bangkok, gerontologist one thing became abundantly clear. We needed to leave as soon as possible. Still feeling the pull of the ocean, refractionist we struggled with our desire to spend just a little more time by the salty pond, buy and the many islands of Thailand make it very easy to do this. The beaches of Southern Thailand sound like the perfect place to lounge around and sip Mai Thais, but we had come with a mission of learning Thai Massage, and that purpose was leading us North, to Chiang Mai, where the best Thai Massage schools were reputedly located. Our driver had some helpful tips for this, and led us to a place where we could book any trip we wanted.
Like many places in the world, connections and networking are the fabric of social and economic life, and I found myself questioning where the balance lay with our driver. Thus far, we had experienced how being brought to a certain place at a certain time had seemed too coincidentally beneficial to one person or another, and it seemed we had a choice to either trust that the connections our driver was making were on the level, or to attempt to find trustworthy sources of our own. In the end, after some discussion on the matter between my clever wife and myself, we decided that it was best to trust our driver, as going it on our own would be too overwhelming, and might lead to even more unscrupulous types taking full advantage of us.
After some very helpful people in a street side cupboard that doubled as a travel agency booked us with the ways and means to our destination, not to mention a hotel when we got there, we proceeded to our next mission, which was namely to get some more appropriate clothing for the climate. Upon describing our need to the driver, he gave us two choices. The Mall, or the market.
As we neared the mall, we saw many familiar names. The Gap. Barnes and Noble. Tommy Hilfiger. Starbucks. I, for one had not come to Thailand to shop in the same stores that I refused to shop at back in North America, stores which paid people in places like Thailand minimal wages for overly expensive clothes. The irony of having someone sell you a shirt for $120, whose cousin possibly manufactured it getting while paid that much per month, or per year, goes far beyond my moral comfort zone. Theresa agreed, so we headed for the Thai market.
One thing you quickly learn in an Asian market is that Asians are generally a lot smaller than westerners. Beyond the difficulty in trying to squeeze through the narrow stalls and alleys, there is the matter of what a ‘large’ shirt means to someone who is half your size. After nearly choking while trying on a few shirts, and getting tangled up in some miniature ‘large’ pants, we realized that in Thailand, I qualify as ‘extra-large’, a fact that my wounded pride is still trying to get over. I’m a big guy, but not that big.
If you have ever watched a decent travel documentary, then you will have no trouble picturing what an authentic Thai market looks like. Each step is a voyage of discovery, with a tight press of bodies competing for what little room there is on the sidewalk, and people selling any and all types of wares, from cheap plastic toys, to mysterious meats, spices, baubles and trinkets, beautiful handcrafted clothing, jewelry and art.
And this was only just the beginning. Several narrow paths led into the massive market, flanked on each side by endless stalls of goods. The building was probably the size of a department store, confined to a single floor, crisscrossed by the grubby lanes. Even the dirt seemed exotic in the market, having an ancient and well-worn feel. At the edges of the narrow strip of concrete that had the best intentions of being aisles were a series of large bricks with notches in them to allow for drainage and runoff. There was quite possibly another society living in the gutter, but I wasn’t too keen on exploring it.
The other thing dwelling in the market was the heat. Again, it was relentless, like a living creature, permeating our beings with a well-heeled sense of patience. The press of bodies and the lack of airflow topped with the ever-present smog create a sort of sauna effect that soon left us semi-dazed, just wanting to buy our wares and move on. It was like an unintentional replication of the Muzak and fluorescent lights used in North American malls to create a consumerist stupor.
We found some clothing for myself and Theresa, and a cool red felt fedora for Cyrus, but were having trouble finding anything for Violet. Cost was not the issue, as most items of clothing ran around 100-300 Baht (3-10 dollars.) There were baby clothes aplenty, and many outfits for the 7 and up crowd, but only t-shirts and shorts featuring superheroes and Barbies for children Violets size. We were hoping for something a little more local and appropriate for her, so we kept up the search.
We had heard about the love and adoration of children the Thais will show. They believe that children, in their youth and innocence, are closer to ‘god’, or the divine, to put it in Buddhist terms. The younger the better. It is not uncommon to have people pointing and smiling at your child as you walk past, or even touching and kissing your child on the cheek. To those of us from Western cultures, this may seem a bit invasive, but feels innocent and harmless enough to let it pass, and we had been told that this was normal behaviour in Thailand, so we let it slide.
After having this happen a few times, I also started to listen to what they were saying to my sweet little girl. At first I thought they were speaking in Thai, as I had little context for what I was hearing, but I soon realized that what they were saying to Violet was, “Oh, sexy girl, very sexy.”
The first time I caught this, I stared perplexed at the semi-toothless old woman who had said it. Was she sizing our 4 ½ year old up for a lifelong career in the ‘massage’ parlours of Bangkok? The innocence on the woman’s face, and her ear to ear smile made me realize that someone needed to tell the Thais that ‘sexy’ and ‘pretty’ had two very different meanings. The more I heard people say this, the more it confirmed my suspicions that it was an innocent mistake of language, and my worries were eased. Somewhat.
And then Violet announced that she needed to go pee. I had thus far noticed that the symbol for ‘man’ and ‘woman’ were universal in Thailand, and they were often enough to help you find a bathroom, but I could see no such signs in this place. Violet and I started to roam the outer edges of the stalls in search of a loo. After doing several complete loops, it dawned on me that someone must speak English, and so I started asking around.
By this point, Violet was getting fairly agitated, and holding herself, adding to my sense of urgency. I started asking stall owners where the washrooms were, but sensing that I wasn’t interested in buying their wares, they often waved us on. Finally, someone caught my meaning and pointed in the general direction we were supposed to go in. I wandered to the back wall of the market again, and finally noticed the small ‘Toilet’ sign hanging in the corner down a small corridor.
Violet was now telling everyone who cared to listen that she really had to go pee, and we raced down the corridor, looking for a nice, hygienic bathroom. Actually, at that point, I was looking for anything that would serve as loo. A bucket would have seemed appropriate to me under the circumstances. Noticing a small (and I mean small, like 4-foot-tall) door to the right, under a stairwell, we ducked under, passed the babies crawling on the cement floor, past the urinal troughs to a private stall. No male/female symbols This was a free-for-all. Opening the door to the stall… oh wait, there was no door. Just a ceramic squat with a hole in the center. Hmmm. Oh, and no toilet paper, just a bucket of water with a metal pot leaning against it. Double Hmmm…
Violet started berating me for not having found the toilet, and was a little confused as I explained that this was it. Time being of the essence, I helped her get her skirt and panties off, explaining would be kind of like going in the bushes at home, and held her up over the hole-in-the-floor as she did her business.
Now as tempting as it may sound, the ‘splash-yourself-with-dirty-water-from-a-bucket’ thing was not on the list of experiences that I wished to share with my children during our travels, and I was fortunate enough to have a hankie in my bag that served as an emergency wipe. Looks like my ‘always be prepared’ Boy Scout training was coming in handy. Washing our hands and my hanky under a tap on the wall, we made our way out of the ‘bathroom’ to find Theresa and Cyrus, and hopefully a dress for Violet, that would not seem so ‘very sexy.” As luck would have it, Theresa had found a cute outfit for her, and we were on our way, wondering if there was a happy medium between Tommy Hilfiger and Dirty Harry.
One thing we had not found at the Thai market was any type of food that we could recognize, tuberculosis so we asked our driver for one last stop before returning to our hotel, hospital at a grocery store or something similar. He suggested going to a 7-11, which seemed to be on every corner, but we explained that we wanted fruits, veggies, bread, butter, cheese, etc. Real food.
I was puzzled when he pulled into a gas station, as his tank was more than half full, until he pointed to the store on the far side of the lot. “There, Tesco Lotus. You buy groceries there.” Dubiously, Theresa and I walked in to what was arguably a step above 7-11, but not exactly a full-fledged grocery store. At least we were able to find some of the things we wanted, lots of little snacks for our journey the next day. We were pretty sure we had chosen soy milk and yogurt from what little explanation there was on the containers, and the fruit was fortunately self-explanatory, if obviously not organic.
Well stocked, we hit the road again, bound for our hotel. As we sped along the freeway, I had some time to reflect on our day. We had seen things well beyond our normal frame of reference, and loved every minute of it. Watching the motorbikes, (which outnumbered the cars,) weave in and out of the traffic, buses spewing noxious volumes of smog into the air, cars driving with no sense of lanes or lines, I started to understand that Asia reels with its masses of humanity, and they all move in synchronistic step to keep things moving.
Like some grand dance, everybody goes with the flow, and it all works out in the end. I wondered just how a Westerner could embrace this, as it seemed far too much like chaos to easily jump into. I was suddenly very glad to have a driver who could not only navigate the chaos of the streets, but could navigate the chaos of the culture as well.
Back at the hotel, we all jumped in the pool to cool off some of the day’s heat. Even in the early evening, it was almost too hot to handle, but somehow, we coped, as we had been doing all day. Feeling somewhat refreshed, we made our way down to the hotel restaurant, looking forward to some familiar food.
Our dirty secret from earlier in the day had taken root, and we were compelled by our cravings to order Coke, once again feeling as though it provided some shield against the heat and its draining effects. Perhaps Coca-Cola does retain some ties to its origins, as the coca leaves of the Andes are reputed to have allowed the natives to endure long treks through extreme conditions of climate and altitude.
At any rate, the fabled drink did indeed revive and refresh us. I ordered Pad-See-Ew, a Thai favorite of mine, while Theresa ordered Pad Thai, known and loved the world over. For Violet, we ordered the American Fried Rice, because, you know, fried rice is fried rice. And although we hail from north of the 49th parallel, it was close enough to home to be comfort food. Cyrus ordered Tom Yum Goong, a spicy coconut soup with prawns, sure to be a hit. He was noticeably excited, as he absolutely loves prawns.
When Violet’s plate arrived, it gave me pause to ponder what the perception of ‘American’ might mean in Thailand. Beside the perfectly shaped dome of rice were several types of ham; some bacon twists, several sausages and a pile of pork patties, with a nice fried egg topping it all off. And just to make sure it was truly American? A handful of raisins thrown in. Strangely enough, obesity is not an epidemic in Thailand.
We are normally not big meat eaters, and as a rule, we never eat pork, if only because it is the least healthy of all meats. Our disdain for the most human of meats was compounded by a sight we had seen the night before on the trek from the airport to the hotel. As we cruised along the freeway at 3 am, we noticed a flatbed truck with rails enclosing the rear loaded with sides of ham. As in, halves of the pig, piled several feet high, open to the 30 plus degree weather and whatever else might be floating through the air.
I remember Cyrus remarking that he would never eat any kind of pork product again (not that I can recall him ever eating any as it was.) And here our youngest family member was about to dig in to a smorgasbord of the swine. I could not get the image of the truck-of-pig out of my mind, but suspecting that Violet was in need of sustenance after all of our traveling and trekking, we allowed her a couple of pieces of bacon to accompany her rice. Once again, our resolve to go vegetarian was given strength.
While lost in the wonders of Violet’s first pork experience, I hadn’t noticed the other plates arriving. My well-heeled manners kicked in, and I enquired around the table as to how the other meals were faring. Cyrus was looking a little pale in the face, and I asked if he felt Ok. “Yes,” he replied. “Would you like to try some of my soup?” Not wanting to miss the opportunity to sample some more authentic Thai food, I heartily agreed. He pushed his bowl toward me, offering a spoonful of that spicy Thai goodness.
“Hmm. Fishy,” I thought, as my first mouthful went down. Not exactly liking it, but not wanting to dissuade Cyrus from eating it, I asked him if he was enjoying his meal. “Not exactly,” he replied, as he stirred the soup. It was then that I noticed the prawns floating merrily in the bowl. I for one enjoy prawns, but I generally like them when the head and legs have been removed. I looked at Cyrus, then at Theresa. “So I guess you’re not going to finish the soup?” I innocently inquired.
Thai food: 2. Hunt family: 0.
At least the Pad Thai was good. And we still had breakfast to look forward to…