Observations of Thailand

This January Angela and I got to see some of Thailand, that small enclave of backpackers and other lost souls, and really enjoyed checking out the sites.  Here’s the highlights:

We started in Bangkok, a huge, dirty, bustling city with some spectacular temples, overwhelming cell phone malls, and more massage parlors (of all types) than any place in the free world.  The Chao Phra River runs through the city and used to feed a network of canals, making it look like the Venice of Asia.  Some of those canals are still in use.  There are little restaurants and mini marts along them, making them look just like small streets in any town.  Instead of cars, people paddle canoes around or ride in long tailed boats, skinny speed boats which are propelled by small automobile engines mounted on a pole which has a propeller at the end.  There’s no rudder; they’re turned by using the long pole.  They’re loud and smelly, which makes them the aquatic version of the Tuk Tuks running around on the city streets.

A Tuk Tuk is a three-wheeled taxi (driver in front, two passengers in a seat behind him) which is driven with abandon by the brave and crazy souls who pilot them.  Now this is an odiferous means of transportation; anything longer than a five minute ride will result in breathing in such a volume of fumes that supplemental oxygen is required to revive the passengers.  I am sure every Tuk Tuk comes close to catastrophe with each passing block, but I was blissfully unaware of that since the roof is low enough I can not see out the front, the sides or the rear for more than five feet.  The bus, car and Tuk Tuk fumes are particularly bad because of how the traffic lights are timed in Bangkok: instead of each direction getting to go for a minute or so, each direction gets to go for many, many minutes before the other gets it’s turn, so a Tuk Tuk ride seems to last forever.

Tuk Tuks, as well as regular taxis, have a rather annoying habit of offering to take you to places where you didn’t ask to go.  It seems every driver on the streets has at least a few restaurants and massage parlors which give them a commission to bring people in off the streets.  The taxi drivers also prefer to negotiate a rate with foreigners instead of turning on the meter, so each ride begins with the repeated word, “Meter.  Meter.  Meter!” 

That usually works.

Once you manage to get to your destination it can be pretty amazing.  The Royal Palace, the former home of Thailand’s Kings and “re-created” for the film Anna and the King, is a huge complex of palaces, temples, chedis (large Buddhist monuments), statues and gardens.  It’s funny how jammed packed one particular part of the complex is: each of the items is literally only a few feet away from another.  Nearby the Palace is Wot Pho (“Wot” meaning temple) with the gargantuan reclining Buddha covered in gold leaf.  It’s surrounded by a temple building about the same size as the Buddha, so it’s hard to get a good picture of the big guy.  Just across the river is Wot Arum (the Temple of the Dawn), which has soaring, spiny architecture and is decorated with shards of Chinese porcelain in beautiful, colorful patterns.

Near Bangkok is the floating market.  We were hoping it would be a local market, selling fruits and vegetables and such, but instead it’s completely a tourist market, selling souvenirs and snack food.  It’s “floating” because half the wares for sale are on little canoes zipping around the canals; you can rent one and float in the middle of all the chaos yourself.  Alas, there is a much larger selection of stuff in all the stalls on the banks of the canal, so you don’t actually do much floating shopping.  We stopped there on a trip to the Bridge on the River Kwai, where we discovered reality is somewhat different than the movie of the same name.  It’s still standing (though parts of it were destroyed during Allied bombing near the end of World War II and subsequently rebuilt in a different style), but the train no longer runs across it, through Thailand and into Burma aka Myanmar.  We also saw a Museum about what the prisoners of war went through in building the bridge and railroad and a cemetery where many of them are buried.

A short trip to the northern part of the country let us ride elephants and meet hill people.  The elephant ride was great, but similar to the camel ride we took in the United Arab Emirates several years ago in that a little time on the beast of burden goes a long way.  We spent the whole ride hanging on for dear life as the elephant tromped bravely and sure-footedly down a hiking trail only a mad mountain biker would have a go at.  It was thrilling – but not the sort of thing you’d voluntarily do every day.  The trip that included the elephant ride also brought us to meet several different tribes of hill people.  It’s interesting to meet them, see their handicrafts (which are, of course, for sale), and see how they live – but at the same time it’s sad to be changing another people’s way of life by visiting them.  Just like in physics where you change a situation by trying to measure it, you can’t have people stomp into a hill tribe village ten times a day without changing their culture.

All of this was in the week (or so) we spent in Thailand in January before Angela had to go to U. A. E. for a month while I stayed and worked in Bangkok.  While we were in Thailand we had two brushes with Royalty.  First, Angela and I were staying in a hotel in Chaing Mai (in northern Thailand) when the Queen and the Crown Prince stopped in to change their clothes between public appearances.  We saw them walk through the lobby.  What’s more, the Crown Prince changed his clothes in the room we were originally supposed to be staying in but turned down because it smelled smoky; the room we got to stay in had already been prepared with a rose petal design for the Prince.  Then, at the Grand Opening of the Space Imaging site in Bangkok, the Crown Princess of Thailand was the honored guest.  I got to meet Her Royal Highness and explain to her how the satellite works.  Then, I and the other operators tasked the satellite while kneeling on the floor as She sat and watched.  Apparently, you have to keep your head below the level of the Princess’ head, so when she’s sitting you have to be on the floor, though my coworkers assure me my head was still higher than the Princess’ as I knelt (or sat on the floor when my knees ached) and she sat on a chair.  Another challenge of being tall, I guess.

So a lot happened in Thailand.  We are now in Taiwan, so the next report will be about the island of Formosa.  Talk to you then.