Our first day in Bangkok, after the 10 hour flight from Helsinki, Steve and I took the modern metro MRT line to the Chatuchak Market. One of the world’s largest markets, it is made up of thousands of small stalls with well laid out clothes (a lot of hand painted t-shirts and blouses), ceramics, art, and knick-knacks.
On the metro I spend my time watching commercials (a comic coming to town, a busy mom talking to her small son about school, a cream for the hands) on a little set mounted on the metro car’s wall by the sliding doors, and watching the people come and go at each stop. I attempt to tell the native Thai from the Japanese and Chinese tourists. The Thai tend to have round, somewhat flattened faces with a gold-brown tint. They have the faces of children – when they are old they look like old children.
As we bounce along from stop to stop, I notice a girl occasionally sniffing the cap from a tiny bottle. In one nostril and then the other. I think little of this till later when I see other young women doing the same. I do not know yet what they are doing. Is this perfume and they are trying to hide the sweaty odor of others? Or is this some kind of addictive drug use, or a decongestant perhaps?
We found little of note really at the Chatuchak market, except well designed stalls and a very hot sun, and returned on the metro for Chinese rice for dinner at a place called Texas Suki before going to bed early.
The second morning, starting at 7:30, Steve and I set out on a private tour in the leather seats of a black sedan with our tour guide Mina and a driver in the front. Our tour will include visits to the train market, the floating market, and several temple complexes. Mina, our guide, tells us she was a poor rice farmer’s daughter, who managed to attend the university in Bangkok and has since been a tour guide for 10 years. She is thinking of leaving the city, which has become too commercial, too traffic bound, for a simple life on a rice farm back in the country. “What do you really need to live?” she asked rhetorically.
Her question reminds me of my younger brother John, who in the end, needed only oxygen and a mask and the wonder-filled waters off Hawaii to be happy. And I think of Steve, the night before, with his oxygen and mask that he uses to dive deep into the realm of dreams. What do we really need to live then? Perhaps only oxygen (inspiration), a mask (clear vision), and the hope to discover something wonderful?
We pass rice farms on our way to the train market, and salt making ponds where stands next to the road offered gallon bags of fresh made salt. We pass shrimp and fish farm ponds (you can tell them apart, Mina says, because the shrimp ponds have wheels spinning oxygen into the water). Mina points out mango orchards, and banana and coconut orchards.
Finally we arrive at the train market. Mina tells us the train’s arrival is not exact, that we may not want to wait to see it come and scatter all the market folk from the tracks. Too she tells us not to dawdle much and block the way on the tracks, under the awnings – the vendors do not like all the tourists who only come to gawk and not buy their squid and their marlin and their fruits and their vegetables.
Next stop was the long boat ride down canals, past houses on stilts, many with their own private miniature temples set up by the waterside.
Steve was both lucky and unlucky, when climbing aboard the boat – unlucky that he got his finger smashed by another boat coming alongside, lucky that no bones were broken and no finger lost! Our guide Mina felt bad that she did not warn him, and from that point on she seemed to fear that Steve was going to get hit by a car or fall into the river and ruin her reputation (for allowing one of her guests to die a horrible death would surely mean the end of her career).
The boat ride took us to the floating market, where there were a few boats selling goods, and a few boats coming in to buy goods, but mostly the market is spread out under roofs where merchants try to charge tourists (mostly Chinese this year says Mina) 10 times what a t-shirt or skirt costs at one of the malls downtown. Mina warned us to bargain but both Steve and I got taken a bit.
We took the car then back to Bangkok to visit several temple complexes, each uniquely designed. Mina told us the history of the kings of Thailand, and a bit of the mythology, and the history of the buildings , and the postures of the golden Buddhas.
The next day Steve and I set out to find a Gem Museum, but when looking at our map a well dressed businessman tried to help and next thing we knew we are hijacked in a tuk-tuk (open golfcart like taxi) and taken to a gem shop where we are shown light blue topaz and red ruby and dark blue sapphire jewelry. We politely view the jewelry, then leave the shop to see the tuk-tuk driver waiting for us. We ask him to take us to the big MBK mall, as we wish to shop for our loved ones back home.
The tuk-tuk driver responds, “I take you to a market five minutes walk from MBK.” A few minutes later, after dodging cars and motorbikes and pedestrians, we find ourselves dropped off and herded into another gem shop, where we are given a tour of the back workshop. Young men sit in small cubicles and with tiny pliers and magnifying glasses, are putting stones into gold ring and bracelet and necklace fixtures. In the corner a man is cutting and polishing a blue sapphire. The salesperson explains to us that it takes 30 minutes to cut and polish a typical stone.
After touring the showroom, and being greatly tempted to buy jewelry running from $300 to $1000 and more, we escape and walk to the huge MBK mall complex. This mall is interesting in that it has not only real stores, but large areas with hundreds of flea market like stalls, like the outside Chatuchak market we visited on our first day in Bangkok (or the silk market in Beijing), only inside and air conditioned. In the 6th floor is the main food court. I ate a wonderful pad thai for lunch there (noodles in a sauce with shrimp, with optional sprinkled crunched peanuts and sugar and sweet sauce and chili seeds – I added all but the chili seeds).
We made our way back down to the ground floor, and caught a tuk-tuk to our hotel. Riding back I realized how dangerous it is to sit in a tuk-tuk, going up to forty miles an hour, weaving thru traffic, sitting in an open metal container with no seatbelts. In front of our hotel, safely discharged, I told the driver I would not pay his asking price of 200 bhat. I argue with him over the price – for I know he should only charge 100. I end up giving him 140 bhat ($4.70), much to Steve’s disappointment in my bargaining power.
After resting at the hotel, we plan to go out and get our first Thai massage this evening.