Noi6 means "the 6 of us" in Romanian.

We are five, you are the sixth one.

We thank you for joining us in our trip around the world...

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A Slice of Thailand

Thailand is proud of its history, never being occupied by a western power. It is a monarchy, the dynasty has been in power for 700 years, their king is the longest reigning monarch in the world (65 years and counting) and probably one of the most loved and respected. It is illegal in Thailand to say anything negative about the king or the royal family. That is all good, but it is surprising to us to see the huge monuments, the colossal pictures of the king from the earliest age to the oldest, it looks like the cult of personality that we know so well from the communist Romania. It is a bit annoying, especially since I have no idea if it actually reflects the real sentiment of the people. Then looking closer, people really have pictures of the king all over, on their dashboard and in their houses. They might be official pictures, but they show the young king of 50 years ago with a bicycle or a camera, or other "candid" pose. The cabs have banners on their windows "Long live the King." In public places they play the royal anthem at 8 am and 6 pm, and people stop and stand for a few minutes with their right hand to the heart.

Wat Pho, the reclining Buddha

Thailand is also the place of 17 military coups during the last 70 years. There is a subdued conflict between the richer South and the poor North. There were countless demonstrations and fights for power that we heard in the news in the last few years. There is a Muslim minority in the Southern South and some tensions and fights there. There were natural disasters like the tsunami of 2004 or the floods of last year. With all these challenges, it is likely that Thailand would not be where it is now without having the king to hold the nation together. Powerless under the constitution, his moral and charming persona raises head and shoulders above any politician or general, he is the best example of the role of a king and why, if we have to have a government, the monarchy is the only viable political regime. Thai people are pathologically happy and content with life and, crazy as it might sound, a big part of that is being the subjects of their king and having 66 million brothers and sisters to share that with. People living in a republic could never understand that, they should hold on to their slogans of pretense democracy, the illusion that they chose the ones in power, and to protect their bliss ignorance, they should never come to Thailand. On that side, I knew that we were safe. The country is quickly becoming a modern regional economic power with efforts to maintain their cultural values and way of life. It is a major touristic destination, it had to be on our RTW itinerary and the only question for us was how much time we'll be able to spend and where.

It might all seem upside down. We had 5 days scheduled in Bangkok. With nine million people, Bangkok is by far the biggest city in Thailand, a modern eastern metropolis which retains some of the old and has a well deserved reputation of "sin city." The traffic is reportedly so bad that more than 300 children are born every year while stuck in gridlock. The local police now has a special unit of (men) officers trained as midwives, they dispatch on bikes when they get a call and help the delivery of these children.
The hit of the nineties, "One Night in Bangkok", it's still fresh in my ears, we had to come here. Five days seemed too little but it had to work because the plane tickets to Krabi were really cheap on February 8. Thailand has hundreds of miles of shores and beaches, attractive islands on the west coast and the east coast and I thought that we could spend one week on one side (Krabi) and one week on the other side (Ko Samui or another island). As we got close to make some reservations, and after reading a specialized guidebook about the islands of Thailand, I realized that it would take more than one day to move from west to east. Too much wasted time traveling. We decided to give up the west coast, give up those plane tickets and simply take the train and the ferry to Koh Tao. Then, spending one extra day in Seam Reap and really wanting to see Ayutthaya, we ended with only two nights in Bangkok. It was enough.
We had a little adventure leaving Cambodia, Maria described it in detail (part 1 & 2); enough time has passed so the frustration and the anger are way in the past. We learned some lessons and even laughed at the irony of the whole situation. Trying to avoid a scam that wasn't, we got ourselves in trouble. In summary we bought direct tickets on the minivan from Siem Reap to Bangkok, without being told that we would have to give our tickets for a sticker, cross the border by foot and take another van. Derek, a young American from Taiwan, convinced many of us that we didn't want to give away the tickets, the only proof that we are to be taken to Bangkok. Without a sticker (a red square without any mark) we were left at the border. Nobody cared that we had the ticket stubs. It turned out for the better, despite loosing $30 we found a very civilized government bus, it took us to the right place in Bangkok and we caught the last bus to Ayutthaya at 6.30 pm. It is a city 80 km north of Bangkok, the former capital of Thailand from 1300s to the 1700s. Another UNESCO World Heritage Site it is recommended as a must see for its cultural and historical relics. At the height of its power it was bigger and more developed than London or Paris. But it wasn't meant to last. Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and the Khmers of Cambodia have an intertwined history very much like the European powers of the middle age. Countless wars, destruction, places occupied by one empire for a while then by another and so on. For Ayutthaya, the center of the Thai power, the end was in 1782, during a Burmese invasion that erased the city completely. It would never recover. There are multiple ruins, spread along the river and over an island, too many to count or describe in detail. I found a guest house, a few minutes from one of the main temples. It would be the cheapest and most basic accommodation so far. For $9 per room per night, we got two basic rooms with a mosquito net, a rusted fan and a shared bathroom with cold water. I never knew that a hotel room can be so small and simple, the price would be increased substantially by the cost of breakfast, but it was good enough. One busy day later we covered all the major sites and we were ready to move on. We did the morning by foot and in the evening we hired a tuk tuk to visit the outside temples. The recent floods seriously affected many of the monuments. The entrance was now free because some of the access was limited. The rains stopped some weeks ago but the ground was still moist. The heat was really bad, and taking a break in the afternoon was salutary. We managed.

We ended the day with a visit to the night market, buying food from local merchants. The night market in Thailand is a touristic attraction in itself. People would cook on small grills all sort of things, interspersed with stands that sell fruits, juice or just clothes. Earlier in the day, by the side of the road, we had the best barbecue chicken since Ileana last cooked one on our back porch more than a year ago. I loved the food, I loved the market and I felt that we would love everything in Thailand. I was surprised to learn that Ileana and the children didn't share my enthusiasm. The sudden heat and the adventure at the border had marked them, they were a bit tired and looking forward to the islands and the vacation at the beach.

In Bangkok we stayed at Roof Terrace Place. Close to the main touristic street, but far enough to be quiet, it was a major upgrade, with very generous breakfast, fridge and AC in the room. We took a quick tour for lunch on the Kao San, a place to see all the craziest tourists in the world. It was enough. The next day, my family didn't want to leave the hotel. Zero interest in seeing the attractions of Bangkok. To be fair, Ileana, my daughter, wanted to see the main sights, but she still didn't want to do it that day. Ioan would have joined me, but he started to negotiate the time that we would be gone. I spent the day by myself, taking a cruise down the river, riding in the sky train, visiting the modern Bangkok with some of the nicest shopping malls and constructions, a street corner shrine, food courts and exhibitions. I walked several miles around the center of the town, the crazy Chinatown and the bank of the river. I avoided the main attractions, we will see those in a quick visit next morning.

Old and new on the river in Bangkok

Experimenting with the camera

I enter Chinatown

Many many streets like this, I turned around after a while because it seemed to have no end

The Wat Pho, a famous temple, with a large reclined Buddha, the Royal Palace (just for show, not where the king actually stays) and the temple of the Emerald Buddha (made of jade). In the garden there is scaled down model of the Angkor Wat temple, we could get a general image for the first time and we laughed when we overheard a tourist asking a guide if this is the real one. It was full of tourists and somebody could easily spend the whole morning, but we were back at the hotel by 11, we had to check out by noon.

Some of many structures at the Wat Pho

The Emerald Buddha, impressive, but no pictures allowed

The Thai reproduction of Angkor Wat

It was a really quick visit by the Royal Palace

Then we went to the touristic clinic to have our second shot of Hepatitis A vaccine. It was the most expensive of all the immunizations available. The tetanus shot for example was a little over $1. At $45 per person, I seriously thought about not doing it. I asked my wife, "what could happen if we don't do it?" She looked at me, thought for a moment and answered: "we could get hepatitis." "Oh, I never thought of that!" We got the shots. We payed the additional taxes, registration fee ($0.6), doctor visit ($1.6). All in all there were nine people involved in the administration of the vaccines. At a minimum it could have been just six! Besides the registrar, the pharmacist (who sold the bottle of vaccine) and the doctor, each of us had contact with three nurses. They were all dressed like in the movies from the 20s with scrubbed caps and white coats. Funny.
After that we took a cab to the train station and spend four hours in a restaurant waiting for our train. That was Bangkok for us. I liked it overall, we never had contact with the infamous tuk tuk drivers, the despicable sex tourism or the outrageous night parties of the Kao San district. When we took the taxis we had plenty of time to just stay stuck in traffic, when I took some buses by myself, it was fun to have no idea where they were going. We easily avoided the scams by the touristic sites. My family thought that it was OK. Jim, the owner of the diving school, would say the next day: "Two days in Bangkok! If you ask me it's one too many!"

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