Friday, March 20, 2009

Thailand 1: Bangkok

After spending my final night in Nagoya with Mike, who seemed genuinely upset that he had missed out on the Sumo (Dan and I were quite proud that we managed to last an entire day of fat blokes in nappies!), I set off to Thailand. Everything went well, got my airport transfer, found the hotel, and spent the day exploring the local area. It turns out that the hotel is in the middle of the worst/best backpacker's ghetto - everyone around here is German, English or Japanese and it's hard not to feel like you're getting ripped off at every corner. Stumbled across the Democracy Monument which is surrounded by huge golden frames with pictures of the King, who appears to be a keen amateur photographer - he is frequently pictured in what looks like holiday snaps with a camera round his neck.
Didn't quite dare to try any of the more mysterious street food yet, so stuck with some tasty spring rolls - and saw what I think was my first ever live cockroach crawl around under another food stall. Had the opportunity to eat any of a selection of tasty fried insects too, but decided to pass on that.
Felt a bit disoriented so bought a second-hand Rough Guide from a shop around the corner, which said to start at the Imperial Palace, so that's what I did the next day. On my way there, got accosted by a guy who told me it was 'Buddha Day' so the Palace would be closed in the mornings. This was the first of three or four men that day who tried the same scam on me, which I'd been warned about several times already. Apparently you get told that wherever you are going is closed, and that they will take you on a bargain Tuk Tuk trip somewhere else instead, on which they then fleece you in some way. What I don't understand is why every single scammer in Bangkok uses the same approach that even badly prepared tourists like me already know about. Surely a bit of creativity isn't too much to ask?
Anyway, I did take some of his suggestions and went to the golden mountain, an artificial hill with a temple on top, which was nice - the view of Bangkok was a bit less than spectacular though, the skyline is not overly pretty. After that, I got slightly lost, first in an area of wood carving workshops, and then on a street where car parks where being made by hand... Found a little park and had some lunch: mystery meat balls on a stick, together with a bottle of coke from a plastic bag - glass bottles have a deposit here so you often get the drink without the bottle, poured into a bag with a straw in it! I made my way to the Imperial palace then and tagged along with a tour. It was incredibly shiny and colourful, and I let the tourguide talk me into buying an overpriced ticket for a traditional dance performance in the evening. That was probably more of a rip-off than those Tuk Tuk drivers I'd been warned about! Then went on to Wat Pho, a famous temple near the imperial palace. The temple contains a massage school, amongst other things, which seemed like as good a place as any to try a Thai Massage, especially because it meant an hours shelter from the rain that suddenly broke. For the record, yes, some of it was a bit painful - you know when you accidentally lean on the muscle in your calf and one strand of muscle slips against another, a very odd and unpleasant feeling? She seemed to do that to me intentionally a few times. On the whole, I really liked it though, and I'll certainly try it again some time. I'm still not sure about the foot massage, that just looks horrible, they poke big wooden blocks deep into the sole of your foot!

Then saw the big golden reclining Buddha, which was absolutely beautiful, and did my first drawing for ages that I'm actually happy about. It does help when your subject is not moving!

There is a big park (more a field really) near the imperial palace, where there was a huge market going on - they sold absolutely everything, from underwear to grilled scorpions to frozen food to mobile phone contracts. Some guys where playing a game where you have to kick a small ball into a kind of basket hung from a line quite high up, using any part of their bodies except their arms and hands. In another corner, people where crowding around a TV showing a political debate. I was reading on the plane here that the opposition party is planning to hold a debate next friday where they are hoping to release information that will topple the current government. The guys in the park where redshirts - I'll have to look up if they are the ones currently in power or the ones supporting the old prime minister who is currently in exile.

Deciding to ignore all the scare stories, I hopped on a TukTuk which took me to the theatre. The ride was short but one of the most fun things I've done here so far! The theatre was big but almost completely empty - there were maybe 30 people in the audience, including at least two older German guys in the company of pretty Thai ladies. Ew. I really enjoyed the performance though, it was the story of Hanuman, the monkey king, performed in Khon, the traditional masked dance, with a few acrobatic elements. The music was a bit grating, but nothing against the Thai narration. It sounded like backwards talking - it's really quite unpleasant when every word gets a lot louder at the end. Haven't noticed anyone actually speaking like this, it must be some stylised theatre voice. The dancing and the costumes were amazing though, and I felt quite bad for the dancers who'd obviously trained very hard to play to such a sparse crowd.

Wandered around a bit more afterwards, and had a pint near my hotel, then slept like a stone!
This afternoon I'm going to do a cycling trip (with Intrepid), although I'm slightly worried that it'll be just me and a guide, that may be a bit awkward. Oh well. And my roommate has arrived today, so will have some company from this evening.

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