Archive for May 2008


May 9, 2008

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I wake up.  Around me is a sea of unfamiliar faces and people speaking in a language that sounds like a mix of Chinese and Klingon.  A woman puts a tall, iced, milky-brown drink in front of me.  I sip.  It tastes like a Milky Way bar dissolved in perfectly-roasted coffee.    

No, I’m not dreaming.  I’ve just nodded off in the Palm Court restaurant in Thailand. 

Our guide Nui has left me here while she negotiates getting us some food and Diane has left in search of a non-Milky Way coffee.  I dozed because we’ve been up since 6:30 and have spent the morning hoofing it through two of Bangkok’s most famous landmarks – the Royal Palace which is home to the Emerald Buddha and Wat Po, the temple that houses a giant golden reclining Buddha.  As I was drifting off in this crowded, local restaurant, I was watching images of the temples’ ornate mosaic work, golden domes, mother-of-pearl inlaid doors, flowers, intricate statues and towering, alien spires dance across the dark of my closed eyes. 

 But now I am awake.  Diane is back.  Nui sets her plate of food down and soon, the waitress brings me a bowl of steaming hot Tom Kha Khai soup.  I am about to wake up again.

This time it happens as I am enjoying the sour, salty, heavenly coconut broth filled with veggies, chicken slices and small green … beans?  Oh wait, that wasn’t a bean.  Nope, that was a chili.  A big chili by Thai chili standards.  And I just ground it up real good in my mouth before lobbing the burning ball to the back of my throat and down my gullet and now it’s … oh god … oh Buddha … this huuuuurts!  Nui is giggling in that demure Thai way.  Diane is concerned but also smiling.  The table of Japanese tourists across from us points and laugh.  But this is so totally not funny.  This is the hottest thing I’ve ever put in my mouth.  Why do we eat these things?  These things that make me feel like I’ve just eaten an ice-cube-sized chunk of ground-up glass? 

I drink the rest of the coffee.  I drink my water.  I eat the string bean that’s supposed to cool things down.  Nothing helps.  But time.  Eventually the searing pain goes away and I am left with the easier-to-bear sensation that an angry cat just clawed its way down my throat.  As the cartoon alarm bells around my head and smoke that’s surely puffing out of my ears dissipates, I breathe deeply and … start eating my soup again.  It’s just too good not to finish.

And this little story sums up a lot about Bangkok.

It is certainly a city of contrasts.  Just as you can be enjoying a really pleasant bowl of soup and then get hit in the mouth with a chili punch, it is possible to have just emerged from a high end shopping mall and come upon a homeless beggar.  The temples that are found everywhere in the city are ornate beyond belief but the homes you catch glimpses of from the Sky Train (the raised rail platform that gets you up, up and away from Bangkok’s notorious traffic), don’t look like they hold a speck of gold in them.  Shrines housing golden Buddhas, Krishnas and Ganeshas share crowded streets with vendors selling cheap trinkets and deep-fried crickets.  The lovely Thai woman serving you your noodle soup says “thank you” in a voice that lets you know she ain’t no woman but rather, one of the country’s many kathoeys, or lady boys.  You can find yourself in a market stressfully haggling with a ostensibly grumpy salesperson one minute and, when the transaction is over, you not only receive your merchandise at a good bargain, but you get a big smile and a wai (the custom of putting the hands together at the center of your chest, prayer-style). 

And boy did we visit some markets.  They were hot, heaving, humid mazes of everything from watch knock-offs to beautiful silks, cheap luggage to light-as-a-feather cotton shirts and pants. 

When we weren’t visiting temples, enjoying the truly spectacular food, or squeezing our oversized Farang (white person) bodies through the small alleyways of the markets, we were racing back to our hotel to meet the tailors.

Before we left for Bangkok, Diane managed to find a guide who had a connection with a back-alley tailor shop.  That guide turned out to be Nui who took us down a side street I’m sure few tourists visit.  There we found a tiny family-owned shop – the kind of place the more posh tailors use to have clothes made for the tourists they lure into their shops.    By cutting out the middle man and bringing us direct to the tailors themselves, Nui saved us a bundle.  But perhaps the best part was visiting the tailors themselves and then having them visit in our hotel room for two smile-filled fittings.

Of course, no visit to Bangkok would be complete without checking out its notorious nightlife and so, after yet another amazing meal and a cabaret show featuring about 30 kathoeys, we took ourselves over to Soi Cowboy, a tiny side street filled with neon bedecked bars, barely-bedecked women and the occasional not-at-all bedecked elephants.  While I expected to feel sorry for the girls working in this district I actually wound up pitying the elephants more.  They’re paraded up and down and fed bags of snacks from drunken Farangs who buy the snacks for a few pennies.  The big beasts (I’m talking about the elephants) looked like they would have been much happier in the jungle somewhere in northern Thailand.  The women however, looked completely comfortable in their environment, and were perfectly suited for relieving the big beasts (I’m talking about the drunken Farangs) of their cash.

On our last night, we visited a restaurant called Bed Supperclub which was housed in what looked like a giant gray oil barrel turned on its side.  Inside, it was all white and wonderful.  Running along the curved walls of the ground floor and two lofts were long, extra-deep cushions covered in white sheets, white pillows, white tray tables and lounging diners.  We took our seats in the loft and were treated to world-class food and drink.  At the end of the four-course surprise meal, I got a seated massage from one of the roaming “relaxation specialists.”  I looked over at Diane, wondering if she’d like one as well.  But, at that point, she didn’t.  She was already dozing contentedly in a pile of pillows, dreaming of our four contrast-filled days in Bangkok.     

P.S.  For some Singapore writing, check out my latest article in Time Out Singapore by clicking here.