December 13, 2016

Bangkok: Two Days was Enough

There are plenty of reasons that I had not been to Bangkok since moving to Chiang Rai in 2015. For one, I'm not generally a fan of big cities. Bangkok is a mega city of 8-10 million people. Second, it costs a fair amount of money to do a weekend in Bangkok when you count airfare, ground transport, lodging, and food. Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, I don't really like being a tourist. It often means a lot of walking while dealing with weather and varying stages of stomach ailment in a strange place. I'm down for walking, but not with a giant backpack on busy streets in the heat of the day.

There was, though, a very good reason for Alan and I to spend the weekend in Bangkok. Our good friend from Russia, who we met while teaching in Turkey, was visiting her sister in Thailand. We agreed to meet in Bangkok for a day to catch up and do the tourist thing together.

So, just a little backstory about our friend. The past couple of months in her life seem straight out of a thriller movie. She had been working at the same university in Turkey where Alan and I worked in 2014-2015. She was still working there when Turkey experienced a failed coup attempted in July, which was blamed on Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic preacher and education advocate who has been living in exile in Pennsylvania, USA. Our former university, it so happens, was a Gulen-funded school, which didn't really cause us any problems while we were there, but in July, immediately following the coup attempt, the university was shut down and those who weren't able to resign fast enough faced serious consequences like prison. Our friend was lucky to be the last person to resign. Meanwhile, school officials were taken away in handcuffs and detained in front of news media cameras. It seemed like the worst was over for our friend until October when foreign teachers began getting detained and deported. This is the spy thriller part. My friend is an excellent writer, and you can read her harrowing experience here. I made her retell it like 50 times during our stay in Bangkok because it just seemed so unbelievable, even though I knew it was all true. My former students have all had to find new universities and try to put the pieces back together in a country that remains totally unstable.

Back to Thailand...

Bangkok kinda grosses me out, to be honest. Let's face it, even the name of the place isn't even something you really want to say in polite company. The Thai name is much less embarrassing: "Krung Thep Maha Nakhon." Past the name, though, I mean this city is super-densely populated with nearly 10 million people. My hometown has 225,000, and my home state has only a million all together. The Bangkok crowds leave me breathless and claustrophobic, tired of jockeying for position and squeezing past people at every step. In the touristy parts of Bangkok, weary travelers, grungy backpackers, and wealthy ex-pats mingle in droves of thousands. Dreadlocks, ugly tank-tops, fresh tattoos, cigarette and weed smoke, fried food, and way too much alcohol create a sensory scene common to many a tourist destination. Bangkok though, seems to cater particularly well to the some of the most hideous desires of visitors. Massage parlors, both legit and perhaps otherwise (happy ending is extra), fill the gaps between tacky dive bars blasting hits from 2007. Middle-eastern immigrants sell tailoring services every 25 feet, fleshing signs for custom suiting and occasionally making physical contact with passers by. Tuk tuk drivers verbally accost passing tourists "Where you going? Floating Market? Palace? I take you, sir! Good price." After midnight, the tuk tuk drivers pull out small signs advertising ping pong shows. Having been to Thailand on a study abroad for women's studies back when I was an undergraduate, I know exactly what happens at a ping pong show, and it has very little to do with ping pong.

While the sex tourism industry happens mostly underground, the scantily-clad drunken tourist scene happens all over. Young women tanned from the beaches of Koh Phi Phi and Phuket stumble through the streets in crocheted bikini tops and short short, leaving little to the imagination. I fear for their safety in that condition, as there are plenty of predatory people who wouldn't think twice about taking advantage of women in this situation. I want to tell them that they are beautiful and they don't need to get this kind of attention from men, but everyone has to find their own path to self-acceptance. To be clear, being drunk or dressing in a sexy way are in no way invitations or justifications for rape or any other crime, but not being vigilant and drawing a lot of attention to oneself in a strange place at night is risky anywhere. Promoting your physical assets ahead of your intellect and respect for the place you are visiting (Thais normally dress very conservatively) is something that a lot of young tourists do, and it's hard to see pieces of myself at a younger age in them.

My after midnight activities, though, pretty much never include anything except for sleeping, but if I'm still awake, there's a good bet I'm eating. This trip, my post beer snack was a kebab, the Turkish specialty that has infiltrated everywhere in Thailand. It was awesome. My dinner had been awesome as well, a mild curry accompanied by an entertaining magic show. A few beers with friends later, I was ready for a snack and a lot of sleep.

Our hostel room was exactly what one might expect to get for $15 per night. The room itself was barely bigger than the twin bed, and the bathroom, well, I've certainly seen worse, but my extensive experience with foreign bathrooms has set an unbelievably low bar. Let describe this one as teeny, moldy, and only semi-functional. The toilet didn't really flush right, so you had to open the tank and plunge your hand in to press on the seal so it would stop running. Although that seems terrible, it wasn't a big problem because, due to the seemingly ever-present jackhammers digging up a pipe outside outside of our window, they had to shut the water off in the hostel for many of the hours that we were there.

So, $15, right? The desk staff also reflected the price, as they were terribly bothered to interrupt their phone chatting to assist my friend with check in. Customer service goes a really long way. They also insisted on having conversations at top volume in the hallways before 7 AM. I don't understand Thai well, but at that volume, it *must have* been something important for all of us. Oh, and I had booked a room with air con, because nothing is worse than a very hot day followed by a sticky night. That was a good intention, but due to the unadjustable nature of the arctic air conditioner apparatus rigging and the seriously micro-sized blanket, it was very hard to sleep comfortably. The hard as a rock pillows didn't help, and the jackhammers were just icing on a rotten "cake."

Thailand is famous for food, and with good reason. Even the street food is usually cooked fresh to order and delicious. It doesn't even make me sick anymore (knock on wood). Pad Thai is always a good order, and everyone puts their own twist on it. Alan and I grabbed a few plates of the stuff from a street vendor, as well as some super yummy deep fried spring rolls. Oily? Yes. Good? You bet. We also ordered pad Thai the next day with our friend. Our Breakfast on the last morning we particularly good though. Chicken green curry served with fried pancakes similar to nan bread for dipping. Delicious. There as even a cat at the breakfast place, which automatically improves a place if you ask me. I thought the cat was being really sweet and rubbing on me, but just as I went to snap a photo, it shook its leg and sprayed pee all over the back of my calf and shoe. Damn. Egg (our cat) was curious about that smell on my shoe when we got home.

On the up side, Bangkok, in its effort to please tourists has soap in almost every bathroom. This is decidedly NOT the case in Chiang Rai. Soap is a good thing in a country where diarrhea is one of the most common ailments. I used a little soap on my cat pee leg.

I bravely asked a Thai friend for directions on which busses to take from the airport to our hotel, in an effort to save money. True to a Jena adventure, the bus trip was absolutely epic, a three-hour journey through the city at night amidst so much humanity.

On our last day, after bidding our friend goodbye, Alan and I took a boat taxi from our where we were staying to another area of the city. The boat ride was a highlight of the trip. Shaded and with a nice breeze, the boats move quickly through the river, avoiding all of Bangkok's hideous traffic. We were absolutely crammed onto the boat at the beginning, but after a few stops, we were able to sit. The kid next to me was adorable in a hat with floppy wings coming out the top. I offered his mother my seat, and she was pleasantly surprised at my gesture. People do not give up seats in Bangkok.

After the boat, Alan and I dove into the side streets of the district where we landed, and somehow stumbled upon Siloam Road, a busy area of the city where I had stayed on my first visit to Thailand. The shops sell Hindu and Halal foods, and the call to prayer wafts from the minarets over the traffic noise every few hours. We found a Turkish restaurant selling our favorite Turkish cuisine, and enjoyed a hearty meal. We even spoke a little Turkish with the waiter. Boy, was that confusing!

A few hours of walking later, we took the Sky Train to Jatujak park, one of only a few green spaces in Bangkok. We did a lap around the park and then stopped for some fried noodles at a food stall before boarding a bus to the airport. We were exhausted from carrying our heavy backpacks all day in the heat and noise of Bangkok.

All in all, I'm glad to have visited Bangkok again to make some new memories with an old friend, and to experience this strange and huge city with my husband as part of our adventure in Thailand.