Friday, April 07, 2006

Thai me down, loose ends

I sent this email out after a night in the big 'kok. I went there with David for a week after the internship. We took a trip to the sedate northern backpacker city of Chiang Mai, where David's friend Keely is teaching. Sadly we left just before the start of Songkran, which is basically a nationwide water-throwing festival disguised as a chance to clean the Buddhas and show respect to elders. One of many reasons to return then!

Two days ago the prime minister of Thailand announced he would be resigning. That's not why I'm in Bangkok now, though Time--where I stopped working last week--demanded my cell phone number just in case. I haven't had the pleasure of doing any reporting for them during my vacation just yet, so I thought I'd do a little now, for you. Apologies in advance: I will not be discussing Thaksin's resignation--I'm saving all that juicy stuff for a later email of course!

One thing you notice pretty soon after rolling out of a taxi from the airport--the second taxi you got in because the first one tried to rip you off--are the white people on Khao San Road (an almost inevitable destination if you're wearing a backpack), and how many of them look as if they've just checked in to drug rehab, or just escaped. It wasn't until later, in the mirror of a bright, air conditioned bootleg CD store, did I realize that the pot had called the kettle crack. My face was glistening, covered in a thin layer of dusty sweat, and it also had a beard on it. For a second my hair even looked dreadlocked. I brushed it back with a hand at the base of which sat a lotus-seed prayer bracelet (acquired at a monastery in russia but nevermind). Did I mention that at the CD store that David and I stopped in--David, my roommate from Hong Kong, is traveling with me--the one album I picked up was a collection of Pete Tong remixes? I quickly realized what was happening, returned it, steered clear of the Jack Johnson and edged towards the door. Playing on the stereo at the loudest possible volume, and still reverberating through my hot head, was Eminem's "White America."

That's not Thailand but I don't know what is yet. Some clues: as we sluggishly made our way over to Wat Po, Bangkok's big famous temple, I was approached by a man smiling a big Thai smile and trying to find out where I was heading. A word of advice: generally, when men approach you in Asia (at least in Hong Kong, but probably everywhere in the world), smiling and on the verge of saying something, try to avoid eye contact because you are probably walking into an elaborate scam. After a little shrugging and some pseudo-lingual answers, I realized he meant well. He said he was a teacher, and he wanted to know where we were heading and explained that due to a national holiday, the temples we wanted to see, along with the Grand Palace, were closed (I partly verified this later to be true--today was a celebration for Rama I, Chakri Day). Luck (that was his name) gave other recommendations and even circled them on my map just before a tuk tuk driver pulled up. The tuk tuk, basically a motorcycle with a three-person bench on the back and a canopy on top, is an apt symbol for Bangkok: strange, cheap, breezy, dirty, noisy, go anywhere you want, and just fun. Another word here: the tuk tuk, I was told, is one of the most popular instruments of scam art in the capital. Needless to say, it wasn't long before David and I were being whisked around by tuk tuk to various landmarks--the golden buddha, the black buddha, the 90 buddhas (the reclining buddha was on vacation along with, presumably, the napping boddhisatva)--while the tuk tuk driver (Luk--not Luck) waited for us outside. He even waited for us while we had lunch at a restaurant near the 90 buddhas temple (that is not the real name). During a delicious repast (like every meal we've had, esp. the street meat, not to be missed!), we befriended another wandering soul named Hillary, a medic on an oil rig in British Columbia who had come to Thailand for a few weeks on her own. There we were, finding ourselves together. It turned out her tuk tuk driver was also waiting outside, and had plans to take her to a ping pong tournament later.

I'm actually not sure that that teacher, the one I mentioned earlier, was actually a teacher. But but but everyone has been so nice--even the people who wanted nothing from us, the men who stopped me virtually everywhere we went today: the medical technician, the vagabond outside the temple, the monk at Wat Suthat. And even if each of them was a scam artist, it was my pleasure. Plus everything's so cheap, getting scammed in Bangkok (like getting some shirts made, or getting a massage) is much better than elsewhere. Something karmic to it probably.

After I ended up buying some discount tailor-made "businessman" shirts--this was the completion of the scam, I realized, but I wasn't sure who was scamming who (see, our driver gets a free gasoline coupon for every foreigner he brings to one of a handful of tailors across the city, and we thought we'd do him a favor, but the anxious burmese store owner was on to our "just browsing" game, and I needed some shirts anyway)--we paid the driver his 2 bucks and David took off for Chiang Mai, up north, where I'll go tomorrow. Tonight solo wandering took me to chinatown, a crazy fresh fish market, dark alleys full of people gnawing on things or napping, a slew of sidewalk blankets covered in the most random assortment of amulets, magazines, broken electronics, cables and used and new clothes you can imagine. Old Thai-Chinese shops selling/making things that resisted my understanding. I in turn resisted the tuk tuk drivers that would occasionally stop, especially the one that offered to give me itinerary recommendations, before asking if I wanted a "massage," or if I wanted to see a "show," or maybe go to an "open bar," or take me back to Khao San Road. I thanked him graciously for his offers, even if they weren't made out of kindness, because he was probably a nice guy trying to make money in this pretty poor country, because everyone I've met has been likable, because this is really a great city, even if I just got here, I swear on my lonely planet (er, lets go). Anyway, I found another tuk tuk, ate some roti at the muslim shop down the road and wrote this rough rough guide to you.

love you long time.

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