Monday, February 27, 2012

Hmm. Bangkok. Tricky. - Part I

I was nervous about Bangkok. This sprawling city bisected by the curving Chao Phraya River has a reputation. Just as I felt uncomfortable, and yet, in awe of the beautiful but promiscuous girl while in school, I suspected I’d be out of my league in Bangkok. No exaggeration, I spent hours and hours from home, searching the Internet, reading TripAdvisor reviews, zooming in and zooming out on Google Earth, dizzy from the effort to establish a sense of distances. Where should we stay? Near the river? Near the wats (temples)? How far was it from this hotel to that wat? The city had me stressed out long before our plane took off.

Dave and I asked friends for recommendations. Several suggested the Mandarin Oriental. Perfect! It was exactly what we’d envisioned, a place rich with history and character…at $500 per night. Ah well. Another friend suggested the Federal because it was smack in the middle of everything. Given what I’d heard about Bangkok’s sex shows and scams, I was leery about what “everything” meant. Many hotels listed online were towering new structures of glass and steel, shiny, modern, not what I wanted, not my idea of Asia.

My idea of Asia was exotic and ancient, shaped by storybooks and my grandmother’s tales about her travels in the sixties. So, perhaps my idea of Asia no longer existed, but I kept returning to the Shanghai Mansion in Bangkok’s Chinatown. The pictures showed a nineteenth century hotel with vibrant colors and traditional furnishings, but I hesitated because several TripAdvisor reviews complained of an unfriendly staff. In the end, I gave in, and Casey made the reservations while we were in Chiang Mai.

Our flight from Sukhothai landed in Bangkok around 7:30 PM. We collected our unwieldy packs, loaded up, and trudged to the information booth to plan our next step. What could have been a bewildering series of trains, connections, and tuk tuks unfolded smoothly as Casey and Karis listened to a list of incomprehensible names of streets and stops, repeated them clearly, received approving nods of confirmation, and led the way.

It was dark by the final leg of the trip, a tuk tuk ride to Chinatown. Dave and I were captivated by the Chinese lettering, the flash of neon, and glimpses of past elegance in Art Deco fa├žades and wrought iron signs, but I longed for a restorative movie-style flashback to swab away the pervasive layer of grime.

The flood waters had not yet seeped into the streets, but the outlying areas were awash, so the inner city was on alert. Upon our arrival, we had to clamber over a four-foot high wall of sandbags barricading the entrance to Shanghai Mansion, but once inside: colorful hanging paper lanterns, a koi pond, red lacquer accents, pen and ink artwork, dark filigreed wood. My idea of Asia, still here.

Like loonies, we gawked at our exotic rooms. The tea set and fruit bowl on the sideboard. Decorative birdcages, parchment patterned wallpaper, embroidered green satin runners, a sinuous carved black frieze atop deep purple walls. We danced from the girls’ room to our own, cameras in hand, snapping away. Bangkok would prove to be a challenge, but Shanghai Mansion was a jewel.

* * *

Suspend judgment. Avoid comparisons to the familiar. Be open to experience and to others. By following these precepts, our travels have been enriched, but in Bangkok, it is not wise to let your guard down.

The day had been one of extraordinary contrasts. In the morning, we’d had a taste of the TripAdvisor warning about the Shanghai Mansion staff. When we asked the front desk clerk if the river boats were running, she said no. She did not elaborate or offer suggestions, nor was she helpful in answering questions. Her expression was set, eyes dark. Well, our rooms more than made up for it. We headed out to the street, hailed a tuk tuk and asked the driver if he knew of any river ride possibilities. Of course! Plenty of boats out there. He drove us to the docks…and the waters were rippling with traffic.

Apparently we had on our “I’m a sucker” tee-shirts, for Casey was aghast at the price quoted by the woman selling tickets. “It’s a scam. Ridiculous. Do NOT pay this,” Casey urged. Again, Dave and I were a disappointment to our daughter…and paid. For the not-so-unreasonable sum of $15 a person, we could board the boat as opposed to spending the next hour sweltering in the sun in search of a better deal. Casey was steamed…and proved correct in her assessment as we were charged an additional docking charge at every stop we made.

Hmm. Bangkok. Tricky. And I didn’t even mention the three-inch long cockroach that landed on my neck last night after dinner…

Shaded by the canopy of our long-tail boat, we were cool, our sweat-sticky skin dried by a breeze, as we glided past tiled pagodas, soaring spires, and a giant golden Buddha. We stopped to explore the legendary Wat Arun, grudgingly paid the docking fee - after a heated discussion with the attendant - and climbed the marvelous, steep, stepped, tower encrusted with brilliant pieces of porcelain.

After re-boarding, our navigator steered down a side canal. I’ve read that Bangkok has been dubbed the “Venice of Asia” because of its canals, but that’s a stretch. And because of the floods, the canals had risen in their channels, swamping the houses along the banks. One woman stood knee-deep in water in her doorway, hanging laundry to dry in the eaves. Two men sat in folding metal chairs, ignoring the water swirling about their legs. We’d heard that crocodiles and snakes were an added flood concern and kept a lookout for serpentine swells in the current.

Our ultimate destination was the white-walled Grand Palace and the temple, Wat Phra Kaeo. At the main gate, we discovered we had one hour until closing. Bad timing. We discussed postponing the visit, but Bangkok is huge, and our days, unpredictable. While we had no idea the degree of truth to that, we decided to stay and hurry. So we ran. Literally.

The guards were not impressed with our need for speed, nor with the girls’ shorts and bare shoulders. Casey and Karis were forced to make a detour to the tourist office to borrow appropriate cover-ups at the cost of precious time and a hefty deposit.

Once properly clothed, we ran up the steps, kicked off our shoes, as required, and dashed in to see the emerald Buddha. We zipped past garishly colored guardians, snarling and angry with their curved scimitars. We squinted at the gleaming gold chedi tower that houses a piece of Buddha’s breastbone. We whirled the length of the Grand Palace and watched the changing of the guard. Silvery sun rays escaped mounding gray clouds to illuminate spires, peaks and finials. Magic. My idea of Asia. But the crowds had thinned and uniformed staff were sweeping. “I don’t want to lose our deposit,” said Casey. “We’ve got to wrap this up.” Right. Next time, we’ll hit the palace first.

The scene outside the walls was disturbing. Murky water seeped from catch basins and crept down the road. We stood at the bus stop, eyes fixed on a spot on the sidewalk to gauge the rate of the water’s rise: how long before that spot disappeared beneath liquid fingers? Not long.

Naturally, the bus we wanted had pulled away just as we passed through the palace gate, and we had no idea when the next one was due. We stood and waited, exchanging anxious smiles with those around us, all of us tracking the advance of the water, watching as cars and tuk tuks plowed along sending waves splashing against the curb. How far inland might crocodiles come?

As pedestrians lifted their pant legs to cross the road, I wondered, would we have trouble leaving Bangkok? Day after tomorrow, the girls planned to take a train south to the islands and we were due to fly home. None of us wished to extend our stay.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Feast to Flight

Our departure from Sukhothai did not start out well.

To celebrate his wife’s birthday, our host, Marco, graciously invited us to a traditional Thai luncheon along with the other hotel guests. After checking out of our rooms, Dave, Casey, Karis and I gathered with the others on the porch at the main house. The cool refreshment of the morning’s dip in the pool had sweated away in stuffing the backpacks, hauling them to our shoulders, and lugging them to the front entrance. While the view from the shelter of the porch was sunlight on neat patches of lawn bordered by green fronds and flowers, it was sweltering hot.

Stretched the length of the table, browned and grinning, was a roast pig. A whole pig. I glanced at Dave, chagrined. Since childhood, I’ve been a fan of pigs – Wilbur of E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, and the plucky Babe of the 1995 movie by that name. Pigs are smarter than dogs, and with a forgiving permanent smile, greet a world that sees them as pork and bacon. Where many would relish this feast as a delightful native experience, Dave and I don’t eat meat, so we were grateful for the hospitality, but tentative. One hears stories of guests eating monkey brains and eyeballs rather than offending a Chinese host, and while this was not as dramatic, I wished not to be rude, but was not going to eat that pig.

Ceramic bowls heaped with steaming concoctions were arrayed around the main course. Perfect. I ladled onto my plate a generous portion of pasta-like tubes in thick red sauce. The dish smelled rich and spicy, but I was wary enough to ask before digging in. It was not pasta and tomatoes, but a stew of blood sauce well stocked with assorted arteries, veins, and ducts. Surprisingly, I was not hungry. There was a lovely bowl of fresh fruit on the table, thank God, and I can report that orange and banana peels make excellent cover.

After picking and poking through the meal, artfully arranging the remnants on our plates, we thanked Marco and his wife effusively, then requested a tuk tuk for our trip to the airport. Marco waved the idea aside – cordial as he was, we’d found he was a man of strong opinion, accustomed to control – and declared a minivan was better, given the length of the trip and the nature of the roads. He made the arrangements and indicated a cost of 300 baht, or nine dollars. Not bad for a forty-five minute ride for four people.

Upon arrival at the airport, the driver turned and requested payment, 1200 baht.

Casey leaned forward from the back seat, her spine rigid, uncompromising. Her eyes locked with those of the driver, her gaze strong as a steel beam. “That is not what we were told.” She said.

The man spoke little English and repeated the price. Held up four fingers. Pointed at the four of us. Perhaps we were unaware of our number? Couldn’t add?

My daughter shook her head, lips set in a tight line. “Not acceptable. I realize this is not your fault, but we will not pay 1200 baht.”

Who was this woman, so firm, so noble, in her pursuit of right? Her antennae had been quivering with caution about Marco since she met him. He was out of her reach, beyond the laser of her indignation, but she was glorious in her determination to shield her parents from his conniving.

Unfortunately, Dave and I were not up to the battle. Soothing others, seeking agreement: that’s what we do. Maybe this was a misunderstanding? Given the option of striding from the van trailed by a protesting driver, Casey and Karis with heads high, Lea and Dave, heads down, hoping no one would see us, we paid. “I’ve learned to sniff out scams, Mom, and that’s what this was.”


But what better way to ease resentment than to spend an hour or two at Sukhothai airport? I jest not; the place was a joy. The waiting area was an open-air shelter, breezy and aromatic with the scent of surrounding gardens. Rows of comfortable wooden chairs branched from the central focus, an artful arrangement of sea-swept gray driftwood and sinuous purple and white orchids. To increase the pleasure of our stay, a complimentary self-serve counter offered juice, tea, cappuccino, hot chocolate and coffee, as well as banana chips and crispy rice treats studded with sesame seeds and cashews. It was festive, light-filled, as we chatted, snacks in hand, with a couple from Australia.

A winged vision in pink, red, yellow and coral glided to the gate, and our flight was announced. I fairly danced to the plane with its mural of fanciful fish and flora painted on the fuselage. Smiling attendants bowed in greeting as we boarded, and once we were seated and buckled in, outside the window, the ground crew, in neon vests and goggles, waved as we rolled away.

Asian airlines return fun to flight.

On this one-hour jaunt, lunch was served; one of the best meals I’ve had on the trip so far. Wide noodles, shrimp, carrots and baby corn in a sauce with a hint of curry. I don’t like cooked carrots as a rule, but these were cooked to the point of just the right crunch. Oh, and did I mention the free beer and wine?

Who do I write to lodge compliments and complaints? I’ve come to accept the harsh conditions of the airlines we usually travel. Delta seating allows no room to shift or stretch and throws a defiant gauntlet to one my age. Creaky knees? As if we care. Sore coccyx? Alternate butt cheeks. Hungry? Have some peanuts. But Bangkok Airways? May I offer more fresh pineapple and papaya? How can I make you more comfortable?

While we relaxed with our wine, fruit, and curry, the view out the windows of the land passing below was grim: swaths of brown mud with geometrical borders of spindly green: flooded rice paddies. On the ride from the Lotus Hotel to the airport, we’d seen our first glimpses of the devastation reaped by the floods: people picking around in yards strewn with debris, porches askew, roads and bridges washed out. This plane ride had been the only viable route open, as we’d heard that buses were forced to take detours up to twelve hours long, and even then, some bogged down, water seeping into the vehicles' interior.

What would await us in Bangkok?