Thursday, May 14, 2009

One Night in Bangkok!

Finally! A new post! Two months since my last entry... I’m so sorry! Wow… what a bum I am.

Anyway, there wasn’t much else I could name this blog entry since I did indeed spend only one night in the city! Although I never cared for the song by Murray Head in the 80s, my one night in Bangkok (a month ago already… hard to believe) was really a lot of fun, and my first impression of the city was pretty favorable. Thailand, a developing nation of about 63 million people, has in recent years been beset by a steady stream of disasters both big and small, man-made and natural. Beginning with the SARS scare (sudden acute respiratory syndrome for those who have forgotten) in 2003, Thailand has been remarkably resilient. The Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004 took a heavy toll on the country, in terms both financial and human. Still, vacationers came. The specter of bird flu cast its shadow on the nation, and there was a bloodless coup in 2006. Still, Thailand remained Southeast Asia’s premier tourist destination. The political scene in the country has been simmering unsettled since the coup, which ousted Thailand’s Prime Minister on allegations of corruption and abuse of power. Late last year, a large group of protesters clad in yellow shirts (to show their allegiance to Thailand’s king) succeeded in shutting down Bangkok’s airport, stranding tourists for days. The resolution to this standoff saw the installation of a new Prime Minister. However, a second group of protesters, loyal to Thailand’s former PM, have taken to the streets to rally against the new administration, which they say was not democratically elected. They want the current PM to resign and new elections to be held. These protestors all wear red shirts, and a few days before I arrived, humiliated Thailand’s government by forcing the cancellation of a 16-nation summit in the city of Pattaya. Heads of state from many Asian countries were forced to return home, and Australia’s Prime Minister actually turned his plane around in midflight upon hearing about the riots and subsequent cancellation of the summit. However, nothing seemed amiss in Bangkok, so I went ahead with my trip as planned.

The flight from KL is just under two hours, and we landed at Bangkok’s impressive new Suvarnabhumi Airport which finally opened a couple of years ago after innumerable delays. (The land for the airport was purchased in 1973 to give some scope of how long it took to get the thing from concept to reality.) I took a nice bus from the airport into the city and headed towards Khaosan Road, the heart of Bangkok’s backpacker and tourist district, full of guesthouses, restaurants, internet cafes, street food, bars, and shopping. Now one thing to be aware of is that this trip fell (not coincidentally) during the Thai New Year festival, known as Songkran. Thais are about 90% Buddhist and their calendar is very different than the Western Gregorian calendar. In fact, even the years are substantially different. According to the Gregorian calendar, the year is 2009, but in Thai culture, it’s 2552. The Buddha is said to have entered Nirvana in what Westerners would consider 543 B.C., so, just as our calendar is set by the life of Jesus (A.D. = anno domani, or "the year of our Lord"), the Thai calendar is set by the life of Buddha, thus the 543-year variance. So even though it’s mid-April, the Songkran festival marks the beginning of the Thai year. And their New Year, much like the Western version, is used as an excuse to party. On the way to my guesthouse, I stopped and watched a Thai water boxing match, where two boxers straddle a long pole over a pool of water and try to knock their opponent into the water. There were also elephants parading around, many of them painted and decorated for the festival.

In Bangkok, mid-April is just about the hottest and driest time of the year, so Thais also use Songkran as an opportunity to have a massive communal water fight… for days. Available for cheap sale on the streets and in the hands of nearly everyone in sight was what seemed like the world’s entire supply of huge, pressurized water guns. Known colloquially as “super soakers” in America, these are not the sad little water pistols of yesteryear. These are more akin to water bazookas. They hold liters of water, can be pressurized with a few pumps, and can shoot a powerful torrent of water. Even these guns, however, were no match for the complete soaking one could expect from a bucket of water. I got shot with several water guns literally within seconds of getting off the bus. I had about an 800-meter walk (half a mile) to get to my guesthouse and I was drenched by the time I arrived. It’s really hard to convey the atmosphere in words… so I shot several videos and have posted a couple here. It’s basically like Mardi Gras, except with vast amounts of water being thrown instead of candy. In addition, little balls of clay are formed and bagged for sale (cheap), so people mix these clay balls into small buckets of water and smear the mud on the faces of anyone within reach (you see the local boy smearing the mud on the face of a passing tourist here). So the streets are running with muddy water, and everyone is in a festive, partying mood. It was a great time. For me, the only real negative was that I was unable to really do anything… visiting temples, shopping, exploring… it was all a bit difficult because I couldn’t walk 100 feet from the guesthouse without getting drenched. It was worth it though. Songkran is a great experience!

The food in Bangkok was fantastic. I had the best pad Thai noodles in my life from a street stall near my guesthouse… just delicious, and almost embarrassingly cheap (about 70¢). One of the principal features of Thai cooking is the inclusion, to varying degrees, of all four basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, and spicy. Condiments representing each of these tastes are common at tables, even at roadside food stalls.

Even though the trip was fun, and my impression of Bangkok was quite positive, I was relieved to be able to leave. The political situation became very unstable while I was there, and a state of emergency was declared, enabling the military to step in to keep order. The last time the protests spun out of control in Bangkok, the airport was shut down for days. Fortunately, the day I left marked the height of the unrest, and it subsided substantially over the next couple of days. I did see loads of armed soldiers in riot gear (below) on the taxi ride to the airport though, along with tanks in the streets, and a few crowds of protesters.

Time sure flies. I arrived in Malaysia at the beginning of September, and the first three or four months went by at a normal, sometimes even lethargic pace. I have really good memories of those initial weeks when everything was fresh and new. Since the calendar turned to 2009, though, my goodness… time seems to have sped up dramatically. These past four months have just flown by. I can’t believe 2009 is already more than a third over. Although routines lend a sense of structure and a comfortable familiarity to our lives, perhaps that day-to-day sameness accelerates our perception of the passage of time. Once things cease being fresh to us, the days become blurred because they’re all largely the same. I’ve heard people lament that the older they get, the faster time seems to go by. My thirties seem to have gone by even faster than my twenties, but my teens (at the time) sure seemed to drag on. I think maybe it’s because you spend so much time learning and experiencing new things when you’re young, it slows time down (or at least your idea of its passage). Once you get older, more and more things in life become old hat or second nature, and before long, all your days and weeks pretty much resemble the days and weeks that came before them, and, almost defying perception, suddenly a decade has passed. Clearly, the solution is to keep learning and to keep changing enough in your life to keep it engaging and challenging. Enjoy the little videos and I'll have another entry posted very soon... it's already written, I just need to sort out the photos to go with it!

1 comment:

Steve K. said...

Nice post, Chad. Sorry Thailand is in such bad political shape -- there are so many things to see that are ancient and wonderous. I hope you get to take another trip to Bangkok soon -- without the super soakers!