Thailand 2014

30 baht(฿)= US$1

El, Jackie and I getting some street food on our last night in town

We leave tomorrow morning from Newark Airport. Just the way I want to spend my Saturday morning...going through a security check at an airport. Meanwhile, El and I are taking the train to New York City for the evening. It is cheaper and less stressful to do it this way than to think about driving and parking in long term airport parking, especially considering we will be flying into JFK in a little over a week from now. I don’t mind the train, really, and since El had enough points for the free ticket, all the better. Our conversation does not turn much to our trip, but rather a dinner plan for tonight. Considering the 16 hour flight ahead of us we dismiss Indian, opting for the equally dicey Mexican leading me to consider if we won't be finding ourselves in a bathroom emergency in just about the last place you would want to...on an airplane!
Why Bangkok? Why now? Well a few years ago my sister, Jackie, was living in Bangkok and El and I decided to take the trip to visit and take advantage of having someone who could help show us around. We got in touch with her to get some preliminary dates only to find out that she was moving back to America and would not be there to host. With that ship having sailed, El and I went on another of our fabulous adventures. So, six months ago when Jackie announced she was moving back to Bangkok, we knew where we would be spending our winter getaway. And with the winter being as brutally cold as it has been this year, the 90o+ temps that await us are welcomed (even by me). When I started looking into flights far eastbound, I soon realized that there were no direct flights from NYC to Bangkok. Maybe you could go direct from Seattle or Los Angeles, but that is still not direct for us. So, now the question needed to be answered...we need a stopover, where do we want to do an extended layover? The options range from London and Dubai to Beijing and New Delhi. Finally, we found it, ANA Airlines flew to Bangkok through their hub at Narita Airport in Tokyo. While Bangkok was a place that I always figured we would get to someday, Tokyo has always been high on my list of future travel, making it the perfect choice...I hope. I have spent the past few weeks researching things to do and places to visit on the trip. As with most of our previous trips we have a sizable packet of potential activities in both places. Tomorrow, the day of departure is El and my 15th wedding anniversary and I cannot think of a better way to spend it.

Saturday February 22, 2014
We sit Liberty International Airport awaiting our boarding call. It is always one of those damned if you do, damned if you don't situations where you want to get to the airport early enough so if there is a long line for check-in, you don’t have to go through the anxiety while waiting in lines if you are going to make it through in time or not. On the flipside, if you give yourself too much time, you beat the crowds, get through security in a reasonable amount of time and find yourself sitting at the gate for 2 hours. I will take this waiting at the gate time over the stress queue any day. Once we have dropped our bags and find seats at the gate we decide to venture out to find some breakfast and/or coffee for the wait. El heads out first while I watch the bags and comes back with a coffee and a bottle of water. We appear to have found the one place in all of America without a Starbucks and El settles for a cup of Juan Valdez Cafe's joe. Next up, I am looking for something a little more substantial in terms of a pastry, bagel, or breakfast sandwich. I consider my options and a sandwich shop catches my eye. It is too early for the trays in the display cases to have been whittled and the offerings look, dare I say, appetizing. I go for the prosciutto and mozzarella sandwich with baby arugula and balsamic vinegar. That, and a bottle of water reminds me what I, and others, mean by the term "airport prices". Anyway, I return to my seat with my $14 breakfast and chow down. I am struck by how inversely proportional the taste is when compared to the look of the food. It is really quite dry and bland. I am too far from the nearest food outlet to run back and get salt and the washing down with water the dry bread acts as a sponge and reminds me of the Nathan's hot dog eating contest when the contestants dip their hot dog rolls in water to slide them down easier. At this point it is a toss-up if this is worse than what we will be offered on the plane. At this point, it is what it is. Hey, they are starting to line us up for boarding. It is 9:45am, we still have another hour. The boarding process was relatively harmless (except for the woman who was flagged by the drug sniffing dog and had her luggage searched in a side corridor by the DEA while she stood aside answering questions from her spot). Soon we were in the air taking the proverbial first steps in our thousand mile journey. El grabs my hand during takeoff and seizes the moment to remind me where we were exactly 15 years ago (getting married in Las Vegas). I quickly fall asleep. It is only 11:00am now, but it is 1:00am in Tokyo, so the more flexible I can be with my sleep now, the easier it will be for me to adjust to Bangkok. Including layover, flight time, and time changes we are scheduled to leave EWR at 10:35am on Saturday and arrive at 11:20pm...on Sunday night. Just thinking about it makes me hope I will be ready to sleep when we get there.
Although I have experienced this before, I am reminded of just how far plane travel has come in terms of entertainment. Thinking about the first time we took a first class flight (wow, coincidentally to our wedding 15 years ago!) and were offered a selection of about 10 video cassettes to play in our in-seat players. 10 to choose from! That in itself was a real step up from the one film on the dropdown screen that the whole cabin got to choose either to watch or not to watch. Today each seat has its own video screen and I can choose from 271 films, short programs, music stations, games, or the unreasonably interesting flight map that gives you current stats and has a globe showing the flight path with an airplane the size of Rhode Island to pinpoint how much of the journey is still left to go. It also has a headphone jack so you can use your own headphones instead of using the airline-issued sets that got collected up at the end of every flight. Yes, some aspects of flying have been improved over the years.
They are coming around with our first meal now. Looks to be lunch. Sadly, they came around with drinks about 30 minutes ago and by the time the food arrives you have no drink left. Good thing I bought a bottle of water in the airport to save me from choking on dry bread. I have so little experience with decent plane food that until it arrives the range of disappointment possibilities is endless. It's United Airlines, not Swissair (where I had a wonderful beef burgundy in coach once). The lunch was completely average and there was nothing terrible about it. The roll was even respectably fresh and they came around again with drinks- wow, things really are looking up for air travel. No wonder the fares have skyrocketed the past several years. With lunch finished, and 11 more hours of flight time I think I will watch one of those movies and relax for a while. By the way, it is -48 degrees outside of the plane. Why anyone wants to know that stat is beyond me.
We have been flying for hours and our map tells us that we are past the international date line and have gone 5500 miles. I watched Argo and All Is Lost on my monitor, and played an hour of Sudoku. I think I need some sleep soon. We have just under 3 hours left to Japan...only to have another 5-7 hours flight to Bangkok. This is one long trip for us. During the flight El decides to buy a small bottle of Champagne and gets two plastic cups. We toast our anniversary and smile. Not many words are needed.
The rest of the flights are fine (with an honorable mention to the crew of the Tokyo to BKK flight who came to my seat not 2 minutes after I awoke from the sleep that caused me to miss dinner. The offering was an impressive seafood curry with calamari and baby shrimp on a bed of saffron rice. With a bit of a spicy kick to the curry, it just wasn’t your ordinary airplane food. We land at BKK at 11:20pm. Jackie meets us and has already bought our phone card for us. And while El installs and tests the card, I find the ATM to get our first sum of cash. We take a taxi to the hotel since dealing with trains at this hour is not how we wanted to get around. The ride into the city is about 400 baht(฿) or about US$15. Once at the hotel, the check-in process is smooth and we get our first lesson in language. “Thank you" is “Kob Kuhn Kap”...if I say it, but pronounced differently if the speaker is female. This is still better than having the words changing depending on the sex of the person you are talking to! We get settled into the hotel which is very nice for the US$30 per night. With a daily high in the 90s (and a real feel in the 100s) we plan to get an early start in the morning- the coolest part of the day and we will meet Jackie after she finishes work tomorrow. We are both tired and get to bed immediately. Travel is exhausting.

Monday 2/24/2014
With exactly a 12 hour time difference, it is no wonder I awake earlier than expected. An hour early here at 6:30am is really feeling like dinner time to this body. I journal and look into plans for the day while El sleeps through until our alarm at 7:30. In recent months we have seen a smattering of news stories regarding anti-government protests that sometimes turn violent. The thing is that it is sometimes so long between reports that when we hear about them we say “oh, is that still going on?” There have been no reported hostility to foreigners that I am aware of and as long as the State Department has not issued a travel ban, I was not going to let it deter our plans. That said, we want to do what we can to avoid any potentially dangerous situations. On our way out the door, I ask at the desk to circle on our map where the protests are happening, so we can do what we can to steer clear of them. She takes a moment, confers with the other desk clerk and draws a circle on the map to clear it up for us. It looks quite a ways away from where we are (but looks can be deceiving depending on the scale of the map!) We grab some water and decide to walk to the Grand Palace as our first stop of the day. As we walk casually down the street, several people stop us- each for their own reason. One rather friendly fellow comes and introduces himself as if to offer help to the obvious tourists. We have been in town for a total of 8 hours and we are not that familiar with the layout just yet. As I walk I give my standard response to strangers who want to speak with me by stating where we are going, and pointing in the direction. “Grand Palace, this way?” I ask as my new friend brings the walk to a grinding halt. “Where are you from?” he asks harmlessly. I tell him New York and his eyes light up. He tells us NOT to go to Grand Palace since today is a Buddhist holiday and the Palace won’t open until 2pm. Well, at 8am, that news sort of deflates the sails. He asks for our map and pulls a pen from his pocket. He gives us the advice to get started on our wat (Buddhist shrine) visits in the morning and then save the Grand Palace for the afternoon. He is starting to sound reasonable- I mean, how would we know the Grand Palace is closed to non-Buddhists today? He does a pretty good mark-up job on our map ranking the Buddhas: “this is white Buddha- very beautiful”, “this is happy Buddha- very, very beautiful”, and “this one is sleeping Buddha- very, very, very beautiful”. We take all advice and decide to keep moving on, but now that we have the beautiful Buddhas ranked by a local, we know where to go if the Palace is closed. He also tells us we should take a boat ride and marks the boat dock on the map before wishing us well. The next guy to attempt to stop us is a man flailing a newspaper in one hand while pointing aimlessly to the news on the front page that reports of a recent death related to the anti-government protests. He makes sure to tell us not to keep going, but turn back since the protests are ahead. Who is he kidding?? I had my map of the city with the protest area circled- and straight ahead wasn't it. We keep walking until we hit Kao San Rd. which is the center of western culture in this city. It is the main strip for backpackers with the concentration of American and British outlets on it. At this hour there is not much activity and I expect most of the current hostel residents are still sleeping off last night’s revelry. We are still early and may (or may not hit a closed palace soon), so we walk down the street to see what it is all about. Besides the trucks delivering beer and food to restaurants and a slew of taxi and tuktuk drivers, we are practically the only tourists on the street. 

view as a passenger on a tuktuk, which is a three wheeled motorcycle that has a back seat that is comfortable for 2, but we saw up to 4 passengers on some. because of the traffic, the tuktuk is the preferred method (over taxi) of getting around town

Of course we get approached by drivers looking to talk us into a fare. No one seems to understand why we are interested in walking when we could be riding. Another looks at our map and seconds the closed palace and boat ride suggestions. He also has opinions, some contrary, to which Buddhas are the best Buddhas. We move along and see that Kao San Rd. is only a few blocks long, capped at the end by a rather large Burger King. We keep walking and eventually get to a spot where the sidewalk intersects with a feeder lane. As we stand waiting for safe passage a guy on a motorcycle pulls up and stops at the yield sign we are standing next to. He looks at us and asks where we are going. “Grand Palace” I say as El points out that his motorcycle actually says “tourism police” on it. He too tells us about the late opening to the palace and thirds the river boat- with an addition as he too looks at our map. We tell him that we have heard about the boat tour and know that we can get the boat from the piers marked on the map. He shakes his head and explains… “you should go for the boat tour- to see floating markets, large, standing Buddha, and some other sights, BUT, he adds, these people before me told you of the expensive places where they just want your tourist money. You need to go to Thai station and get the boat there. It is where local people get the boat.” He also reminds me that my shorts will prevent me from getting into the palace- but that I can borrow pants there. We thank him for his suggestions as he too adds marks to the map. We continue walking discussing that, at this point we probably need to consider an alternate to the palace plan and decide to see what this Thai station is all about. A bit down the street yet another guy asks us where we are from and if we need any help. His name is Chai and he seems just like a good Samaritan type who wants to practice his English and be a goodwill ambassador to us. We tell him we are on our way to Thai station to get the boat trip and then the Grand Palace after lunch. He is very impressed and asks us how we know about Thai station as only locals know Thai station. We got good advice he tells us. He approves of our itinerary for the day, but does suggest that we take a tuktuk from here since the protests are up ahead on the left and we probably want to avoid that if we can. He thinks the tuktuk should be about 30฿ and just then a tuktuk comes by and offers to take us to Thai Station for 20฿. The boat is 1400฿ each for a 1 hour tour of the canals. More like a drive-by than a tour since there is little interaction with the driver. There is no commentary other than our captain/driver yelling "hey" to get our attention once in a while to point out some landmark or other item of interest. 


Taking a private boat across the river to the canals

waterfront property

Wat Arun from our boat tour

A reclining Buddha

We stop alongside a vendor who floats around in a boat selling souvenirs all day. Nothing interests me and her price of 20฿ for a small bottle of water makes me feel like a tourist (they are 7 everywhere else). I pass on the water and we do not stop at other boats. We do see some wats, the canal houses from a point–of-view you cannot get from the road, and the floating market people. At 9:30am on a Monday, these floating market people are strictly there as a tourist attraction rather than for actual local commerce. After an hour we dock near the Grand Palace. As we disembark we are presented with a bill. Since we already paid for the boat tour, I think it is a guy trying to sell me something in the vein of lucky numbers or something. Alas, he explains that since we are exiting the boat at a different pier than we started from (to us they all looked the same) we had to pay a 20฿ fee. We did tell the ticket office that we wanted to go to the Grand Palace, so we paid and pressed on- taking the receipt to ask Jackie if that is normal. We get out to the street and the Grand Palace is on the left and Wat Pho (reclining Buddha) is on the right. We go to Wat Pho first. It is 100฿ each, but you can take photos. 

The reclining Buddha

The toes of the reclining Buddha in the foreground

Just one of the hundreds of designs on the reclining Buddha's feet

Wat Pho (reclining Buddha)

Although we have to remove our shoes before entering, I am impressed that they use reusable nylon bags as opposed to the mosques in Turkey that use disposable plastic bags for a 10 minute, one time use and then toss them out. We don’t spend long here as once you get in you realize that the gigantic statue in the big room is the whole of the attraction. Of course, if you are Buddhist you can use this time to pray and do other spiritual things, but we are sort of done after just a few minutes. Afterwards we go to the Grand Palace. I feel strange when considering the people that we have met this morning so far, in that some people clearly want to help you and be a good face for their city, whereas others are just trying to set you up to make a buck. Not that I can blame them, but it is impossible to tell most times until much further into the conversation what angle they are playing. Unfortunately when you spend 5 minutes speaking to a helper only to find out they gave you a pitch, the next guy who approaches you is probably going to get spoken to in a tone that he does not deserve- regardless of his intentions. As we make our way around Grand Palace towards the gate, we are stopped once again. This time I am a little suspicious since we are walking just a few feet behind another couple who are also obvious tourists. By this time El is fed up with the people stopping us and keeps walking on past them, whereas I tend to be a little more polite even if it turns out that my time is being wasted. We are stopped here by another guy who tells us that he is part of the police and that we cannot walk down this street. I hear “police” and “cannot walk”, so I stop but am immediately questioning why he did not stop the couple in front of us if the street is closed. He is now about the sixth person to tell us that the palace doesn’t open until 2pm. It is about 11:00am. He looks at our map and uses his pen to suggest that we take a tuktuk to the three wats (happy Buddha, white Buddha, and sleeping Buddha) and then come back to the palace in the afternoon. He even can arrange the tuktuk driver for us that will take us, wait for us, and then bring us back afterwards. I keep telling his it sounds like a good idea but that we want to walk around the palace. Just then he motions for a tuktuk to stop and he begins negotiations on our behalf until I finally say “no, we are sticking with our walking plan”. The driver is more understanding than the “police” guy- who I am beginning to have my doubts of his credentials. We press on walking the perimeter of the palace. Eventually we get to the main gate around 11:15am and there is zero indication it is closed or access is limited for any reason. In fact, there are announcements on the speakers in English telling tourists to avoid anyone who tries to slow them down or tell you that the palace is not open. So, while I think we did meet some good people this morning, it seems that most have an element of untruth in their stories (intentional or not). As we enter through the gate of the palace there is a guy who tells you which line to wait in based on your clothing. You either are properly dressed or you need to borrow proper dress- so one line is tickets and the other is for wardrobe selection. While “rental” of clothes is free, you do need to put down a refundable deposit to take them. I catch a glimpse of the ticket prices (all of which seem to have increased since the printing of our guidebooks and information) which is 500฿ each and after our taxi last night and the boat trip this morning, we don’t have that cash on us. We turn right around and decide to head to lunch, hitting an ATM on the way, and returning to the Grand Palace later this afternoon- I figure just about 2pm. I look up some options and see an Anthony Bourdain suggestion called Tang Jai Yoo, a place where pork meals are recommended. This will give us the opportunity to see some of Chinatown and after getting a little lost we eventually find it. Although he ate suckling pig, I went with the more traditional pork in garlic sauce which was really pretty decent. I tell El over lunch that I am already miserable today because of the weather. I do not do well in this kind of heat and the funky sleep patterns are probably not helping. We usually enjoy walking, but in a city where transport is so cheap, we think we may have to start using them to be able to get around this city that has so far, been a little challenging to navigate. After lunch we go out to the main street through Chinatown and try to negotiate with the tuktuk drivers which I always hate because you ask how much to such and such place that you know should around 30฿, but every driver will start you off at 200฿. Sometimes you want to negotiate, while other times I don’t want to be jerked around getting quoted the “tourist price". Negotiations usually end with me hearing the inflated price and walking away until a driver calls my bluff and follows me for the fare I am willing to pay. After agreeing to 50฿, I remembered that someone told me this morning not to pay more than 30 for anywhere within downtown. At least I know for next time. We have the driver drop us at the Grand Palace front gate since it is a considerable walk around the walled compound. 
Grand Palace

Grand Palace

Grand Palace

Once inside we are told that El is dressed appropriately, I am not and have to borrow pants at the dressing room. The Grand Palace grounds are big with many temple and buildings. The centerpiece is called the emerald Buddha which is a 26 inch Buddha carved out of a large block of jade. You can’t take photos inside the shrine, so many, including us get our shots from outside the open doors.

 

The emerald Buddha...26" tall and made of jade

Inside is quiet and beautiful and has a floor full of worshipers all sitting silently who don’t need the likes of me roaming around taking pictures. After the Grand Palace we decide to try taking the city bus. We see a tourist info center (across the street from the entrance to Grand Palace) and ask for a bus map and a route number. She gives us the standard tourist map that does have bus numbers on it, but it is not a route map. We tell her where we want to go and she tells us to take the 70 bus and even points us to the bus stop. The afternoon traffic is starting to pick up and we see several buses come through the stop before we see the first one we want. While waiting, I had confirmed with the cash manager what bus we will take and make sure it will stop here. He lets us know we have good info. So we wait. For about a half hour in the beating sun until finally a 70 comes. We get on and before the bus can take off, an older woman comes over to us, presumably having been around when we were asking if our bus info was correct and she tells us that this is NOT the bus and that we need to get off and get the next 70. Now maybe the bus said "limited" or "express" in Thai, we don’t know, but we are told to get off and wait for the next bus #70. An older woman tells us she was taking the same bus and would make sure we got where we needed to go. The bus took us 1½ hours to go the same distance that we walked in about an hour this morning! The traffic was frustratingly stagnant. Jackie is waiting for us in the lobby when we finally get back and we get a dinner plan together. It is her pick and we go to a restaurant called the Water Front. We walk from the hotel which is not all that far. I get chicken in green curry sauce that is served in a metal soup terrine. Each of us gets a small plate of white rice and a teacup sized bowl. The idea is that you take a piece of the rice cake and put it in the cup, ladle some of the chicken and sauce in and eat the few bites before repeating over and over throughout the meal. One of the things that is a little different for us is that every meal gets served with a side plate of condiments that includes crushed hot peppers (for heat), sugar (for sweetness), tamarind (for bitterness), and a wedge of kefir lime (for sour). People use whatever spicing they want in any combination that can be completely different from someone else at the same table eating the same meal. After dinner Jackie goes her way and we walk back to the hotel. This was one of those days when I think that it doesn’t seem that we have done that much, but when I look back on the day in retrospect, walking a few kilometers, seeing three Buddhas, Grand Palace [ticking off another of our 1000 Places to See Before You Die places], Chinatown, negotiating and taking a tuktuk, walking Kao San Rd. , the canal boat tour, navigating a city bus and then meeting Jackie for dinner, no wonder we are exhausted and sleeping at 10:00pm.

Tuesday 2/25/2014
Today is our cooking school class. It runs from 9:30-1:30 and we have to arrange our own taxi to the school at 8:30. Ordinarily the school has a shuttle bus they use to pick up “students” at their hotels to bring them to the class, but we are told that we are out of their range. The school has left a message for us at reception and also called our room to make sure we are still confirmed for the class (I am thinking both could have been avoided if they would just require prepayment- which they do not). Not knowing when we will eat, we get a small breakfast at the hotel. Today is rice with a pretty spicy stir fried chicken and mushroom dish and some fresh vegetables. The desk does not call us a taxi, directing us to just head to the street and hail one ourselves. With taxis, there are metered and those who want to not use the meter. As long as they use the meter, we are willing to take the cab. We walk out to the main street and get in the first taxi we see. We have a map and address for the school and a phone number to call and have the driver discuss directions with them. We have the phone number they gave in the reception message and the number on their email to me and neither are in service. El goes to the website and gets a third number to call and the answering machine message gives us a fourth number to call. Finally, we get someone on the phone who is able to speak to the driver to confirm our destination.
The traffic in this city is quite a sight. It is like so many other metropolitan areas, and when you are sitting in traffic that does not move for minutes at a time it is frustrating to say the least. While the roads are clogged with cars and buses, the motorcycles that weave through the crawl are the only ones making any real time. We have been in the taxi for 50 minutes and gone just 17 kilometers. Luckily, we are not even at a 150฿ fare yet and so as long as we don’t hold up the class, it is all good. I sit back and remind myself I am not in Clifton Park anymore. We arrive with minutes to spare and are welcomed with a cup of chilled lemongrass drink that tastes just like Froot Loops cereal. We exchange pleasantries with the three other people in the group: one from Montana, one from Adelaide and a guy from Melbourne, Australia. We are introduced to our translator, Cookie, who starts by explaining to us all of the key sauces and sauce components we would be using today. 


Cookie explaining the sauces and spices we will be cooking with today

Next we got a tour of the herb garden and meet the chef, Noi. Her English was good enough for me, but I could see some were struggling to understand both of them. The chef is funny and the banter between Cookie and Noi shows they have been doing this for a while. There were four courses and we started with dessert since it needed time to chill during the rest of the class. Our first lesson is about coconut and we each take turns shaving the meat from the inside of a ripe coconut before moving inside to the kitchen where we watch Noi make a stir fried chicken and cashews dish. 

The first practical we had was to remove the meat from a half of a coconut. You had to sit on a block with a spiked ring attached and scrape the meat fromt he shell. We all took turns.

She passes the finished dish around and we all sample- kind of like a “this is what your dish should taste like when it is done”. They pass out our ingredients and we prepare them and head to our cooking stations. It only takes a few minutes to cook the dish and we all adjourn to the patio to eat our own creations. Then we go in to watch and learn a grilled beef salad. 


A cold, grilled beef salad with fish sauce and vegetables. It was really excellent.

Same routine, Noi prepares and shares, then we make our own, head outside to eat, and repeat with the fourth course of pad Thai. As we finish up eating our pad Thai the crew brings our chilled desserts and some parting favors for us. It was a wonderful morning and it was well worth the 2000฿ each for the course. 

El, needing some kitchen knife handling pointers

After the class is done they offer us a ride- although not as far as our hotel. After some quick thinking, we figure if we can get a ride to the subway, then we could take it to the stop closest to the hotel and take a taxi from there. Bangkok has two kinds of trains: metro (MRT) and skytrain (BTS). Both are similar, metro is underground and skytrain is elevated. We get dropped at a station that services both. Instead of taking it blind we sit on a park bench and pull out our maps to see if there is anything nearby that we can do, since we may not get out this way again. I had noted that I wanted to go to the Red Cross snake farm if possible. I read that there are 2 shows during the day, one, a venom- milking show at 11:00am and a snake handling performance at 2:30pm. Being just about 1:30pm, we have an hour to figure out where the snake farm is, take the metro, and make the 2:30 show. We find the description of walking directions, and go to the MRT which is the underground metro. The ticket machines are easy enough to navigate and we are off. The metro is clean and air conditioned. We get off at the Si Lom stop and did not realize that the Red Cross compound is actually several blocks long. We ask a few people along the way who keep pointing us in the right direction. We finally find the snake farm. It is 200฿ entrance fee and about 2:20 when we arrive. The place for the show is almost full of about 50 spectators and the show gets started on time. This is the handling show, and the emcee gives the narration in English first and then Thai. Several handlers bring out snakes one at a time as the host gives historical and fun facts about the snakes and the farm. The farm was organized in the 1920's to collect venomous snakes found in Thailand and manufacture anti-venom as imported anti-venoms were not effective against Thai snakes. Today it is the largest snake farm in Asia. After the hour long show they invite anyone up to the front to hold and get photos with a large python. We get our photo and tour the rest of the herpetarium.

 



One of the venomous specimens

One of the non-venomous specimens

We are done around 4:30 and make our next stop the Rock Pub which is listed as the only heavy metal bar in Bangkok. As usual, negotiating a tuktuk is frustrating since their opening fare is so high, it makes it difficult to come to an agreement for a price. We decide to walk it. We start walking and are eventually finding ourselves in the middle of a street festival type thing. It is complete with a stage with live performances, food stalls, and vendors of all kinds- tshirts to jewelry. Oddly, there are a lot of tents scattered all over the place. The streets are closed to traffic and we walk through on the way to our destination. I see a Starbucks and we stop to get El a collector’s cup (she has been picking up cups or travel mugs in many of the cities we visit). It is actually located in a mall and while waiting for El, I see a sign for the skytrain. We figure out that we can take the BTS for a couple of stops and save us from having to walk all the way through the fair. It was a good move on our part. We got to the bar and the door was open with people working inside. They expect we will not want to drink since they are not set up yet, but they are wrong. The manager, Luk comes to welcome us and tell us they will give us 10% off since they are not yet open. We tell them that as long as there is wi-fi and beer we are good to stay. We text Jackie to tell her to meet us here while we check our email and look for some evening plan since I am sure Jackie would be horrified to spend any length of time in this establishment. I speak with Luk about some of the street food places. I show him my list of 10 places and ask if any are in this area or otherwise easy to get to. He tells me that some of the places are near the, now deadly, protests as we heard that on Saturday a grenade was set off killing a 5 year old. The protest are mostly peaceful he said, until they are not, I counter. He also asks how we found the place since his business has really been suffering because of the protests. As he is motioning towards the protests I start to put two and two together and it dawns on me that it was no street fair that we were walking through earlier, but that we had just passed through ground zero of a revolution!


One of the temporary settlements of the protesters

We didn’t mean to go there, and wanted to avoid it, but it seems that the protests are happening in multiple areas. I guess that we could have a sterile vacation and do everything with a tour, but sometimes we test the limits of our own comfort zones, even if we are just passing through. Sometimes it is better to know in hindsight than beforehand. We settle on a street food stall that we need to find. I have a list of the top 10 street food stalls in the city and we go with Bamee Slow which is a 24 hour stand that specializes in "dry noodles" with shredded pork and a soft boiled egg. The walk is longer than we expected as the addresses are not laid out the way are used to that is all (the address is 19 Ekamai Soi, which means it lies in the 19th block of Ekamai St. rather than just walking to building number 19). Eventually we locate Bamee Slow and we each get a bowl of the soup and split a bottle of water. It is one of the kinds of places where you try to overlook the cleanliness factor (or lack thereof). 

One of the best food stands in Bangkok? On the top of the cart is the pork, on the bottom are portions of noodles

The finished product with broth and medium boiled egg

Now, someone said that when they are away from Thailand, this is their first stop upon return. While tasty, fun to find, and good company I am not sure I would go so far as to make this the first stop every time unless I lived across the street. After dinner we walk back to the BTS and take it to Victory Monument station which is the closest metro stop to the hotel. It is about 3 miles from the hotel. Jackie takes her taxi home and El and I start walking. We didn’t realize a few things: how far it was, how much our feet would hurt, and how little availability for a tuktuk or bus along the route there would be. Nonetheless, we made it back to the room round 10:30 and booth collapsed from exhaustion. Thankfully the room has a decent air conditioner and it gets heavy use when I am in it.

Wednesday 2/26/2014
We don’t really have much in the way of must-sees on this trip. I have put together a long list of options we could do if we are in the area, but nothing like a list of can’t-go-home-before-doing- these things. We set the alarm for 7:30 since that has been working for us. We catch up on the news while we get ready for our day. At breakfast El figures out how to take the public ferry to the Forensic Museum. That one is on our list of weird things to do in Bangkok and I think of it as one way to see something that many others don’t in an area most others wouldn't even find themselves. It is across the river from Chinatown and I saw another food stall recommendation is there. Also a wat in the area could round out the majority of our day. We take the N10 ferry from the dock in front of the Water Front Restaurant from Monday night. We are looking to get to a stop called Wang Lang. We have some basic directions but expect that we will have to ask for directions once we get to the area. Although this boat seems to be sturdy, the way they pack people on makes me think of every time I hear about a ferry that capsizes killing X number of passengers. I could see that happening here. It doesn't, of course, and we get to the Wang Lang stop in a matter of minutes. On the way off the boat El confirms the schedule and route we need afterwards to get to the Wat Arun.
We walk a little bit through the bazaar, we see and smell some funky stuff in this market where the vendors offer everything from unidentified foods to children’s books and toys, to a tattoo shop (yes, a single-chair, open-air tattoo shop- where I am guessing the word autoclave would get thoroughly lost in translation!). We quickly realize we need nothing here (except maybe some postcards) so we just get going to the museum. The museum is located on the second floor of the forensic center at the Siriraj Medical Center and our book says to ask people for “Si Ouey” [see away] to get pointed in the right direction. There are actually several museums as part of the medical center compound- but we only needed to see one. We finally make it to the second floor of the building and sign in at the guard desk. Then we head to buy our tickets. We are offered a discounted ticket if we are interested in all of the museums on the premises, but we figure that once inside we will quickly have our fill and pass on the multi-museum ticket. We pay our 200฿ fee and head in. The museum is broken into three parts: fetal deformity, pathology, and parasitology. We start with fetal deformity. As we enter, we have already filed this under “very strange tourist attractions”. The first room has about 20 specimen blocks that each have a fetus in it. Each has an exhibit card that explains what you are looking at. The afflictions range from conjoined twins, to “mermaids” (whose legs and feet are fused into a single appendage), to one poor soul whose brain developed outside of its skull. The room is bright and quiet and we see we are not the only two in the room as another visiting couple is doing their own tour. As the woman turns we both remark mentally at the strangest thing we have seen all morning…she is just about 8 months pregnant and standing among this curation of fetal deformity. To each their own, we conclude. The next exhibition, forensics, is split into three sections: criminal pathology, the 2005 tsunami, and forensic pathology. We are greeted by fascinating autopsy photos of gunshots (self-inflicted and homicidal), blast wounds, car accidents, and even one unlucky fellow who was on the receiving end of a propeller. I am fascinated by this stuff and most of it is pretty tame compared to what you can find on the internet these days. Next are the medical aspects of the 2005 tsunami that killed 3,777 people who had to be identified before being buried or otherwise processed in death. The exhibit just showed what a monumental task the identification and processing was. Tragic. As we make our way through the rooms, we see a lot of bones and amputated limbs labeled with the traumas suffered. Many were skulls with gunshots or blunt force traumas- now we know what your skull looks like if you are killed by a brick to the head. There is also the standard display of a lung cancer victim’s lungs juxtaposed next to a healthy pair. Also some organs, like a heart with a gunshot and an entire digestive tract (including tongue and stomach) of a suicide by drinking acid. Just when we think it can’t get any stranger we hear a commotion behind us. It is a class of school kids on a field trip! I mean we are seeing things that you have to click the "I am over 18" button just to enter the website and these kids are going to photos of a suicide by train on display?? Man, I would have loved to be in a class like that, but we just got to go to plays of the Wizard of Oz and such. We make our way through and go to the parasitology section which is mostly just specimens of blood flukes and tapeworms in jars and one gigantic testicle from a guy with elephantitis. That was a sight alright. I suppose there is a reason there were no photos allowed. For its size, we spent longer going through than I expected we would. 
After the museum we take the ferry across the river to the station where we can catch the shuttle to Wat Arun. We keep reading how this is a beautiful wat and the story is that ages ago Chinese ships used to come through and they would use broken ceramics as ballast in the ships, so when they would offload cargo they would also have to unload some of the ceramic shards that were then used to decorate the tower. 

Wat Arun from the base up

Wat Arun from the pier

Some of the sculpture on Wat Arun

close-up of the ceramic decorations. clever designs and bright colors make it very beautiful

They say the best time to visit is in the evening as the sun is going down, but hey, there is only so much time budgeting we can do in this city. We visit the Wat Arun for about an hour climbing it and taking many photos, then catching the ferry back to the other side of the river. I had read about another street food place called Samosa in Little India as a place to get its namesake. We have also read about a trolleybus that runs every half hour and is sponsored by the Tourist Bureau. The last trolley is at 4pm and we still have to find the stop for it. We walk towards Chinatown to get to Little India, but we come to a point where we realize that we have no specific address or proximal landmark that we can find. We can’t find more information on the internet and we ask some people who don’t seem to have the first clue what we are talking about. We make the call to head back towards the trolley and just grab some food on the way. We stop at a cart for a sweet crepe filled with a salty hot dog and spicy hot greens, then rolled up. One crepe, one bite. I also get a grilled pork on a stick. It is about three bites. A four bite lunch for 13฿. It is not filling but enough to keep me going as we make our way back to find the trolleybus. We get to the tourist office around 3:30, but find out that the trolley used to run and has been discontinued. It was replaced by a municipal bike rental network- of which we were having none of (if you saw the traffic and driving here you would understand why). We decide on 30฿ to pay for a tuktuk to Kao San Rd. The first 2 drivers want 100 and when I counter with 30, they laugh and I walk. The third driver I walk up and say not “how much?" but a statement, "30 to Kao San Rd”. He counters with 60 and I recounter with 50, he takes it and we are off. In local terms it is still way too much money for this ride, but it is sweltering, we are tired and hungry and just want less aggravation. We get to Kao San Rd. which is the hub for international travelers.

Kao San...it's where the Americans go

El quickly checks for the best places on Kao San Rd. and finds a place called Tom Yum Kung as a place with respectable Thai food and comfort. We each get a beer. Jackie calls while we are here and says she should be here in 30 minutes. We will journal and finish the beer while waiting to see where Jackie wants to go. They have no wi-fi, but I can wait on that. While I am journaling, El spots a nearby café advertising wi-fi, and goes to ask for the password. It takes the purchase of a breakfast muffin to get the free password for one hour. It's all good as we sit and wait. We get a plate of spring rolls and once Jackie arrives we get a plate of chicken wings. One of the things on our list is to have a drink at the SkyBar, which is a rooftop restaurant/bar that sits 66 stories above street level. The thing is that most descriptions also talk about the strict dress code and high prices. I also read that there are several rooftop and panoramic bars in the city- all with differing heights and views. None are really close to the hotel, so we look for one close to where we are now and decide on Phranakorn Bar.

 


appetizers on Kao San Rd. before dinner not on Kao San Rd.

We walk back down Kao San Rd. and this seems like a good time to discuss the street food thing. We don’t really have the same street food equivalent in America, although we have seen it in many cities in our travels. It's not like a hot dog cart in or a food truck, think more a vendor with an ice cream cart on two wheels, but instead of ice cream, he has a charcoal grill and makes anything and I do mean anything to eat on the go. Some do have little table setups and you can just sit and eat on the street while others are grab and go. Some of the stalls smell wonderful while others smell like a dump. It is usually unclear if the smell is what they are cooking or just the area near where they are cooking. Either way it is awful. People have written books and guides dedicated just to the street food offerings on Bangkok’s streets. This gives an indication of how many stalls there are here. We just wanted to sample some that were considered the best. None of the qualifiers are on Kao San Rd. so we continue on to the bar that we actually have a difficult time finding. Even using the GPS, I tell you these roads are hard to navigate. We have to start asking people on the street and while several said they knew where it was (even though they pointed us in the wrong direction!) Jackie winds up calling them to get back on the right track. Once righted we get to the place in a matter of minutes. The place is described as an art gallery/bar/restaurant and that is pretty accurate. We sit on the fourth floor rooftop and order beer and dinner. The music is smooth jazz. I get a shrimp pad Thai with some rice. It is workable and very reasonably priced. It is no SkyBar view, in fact, there is not much of a view at all, but it is a rooftop bar with decent food and company, so you’ll get no complaints. After dinner we get a tuktuk to take us back to the hotel. We are all tired and want to call it a night.

Thursday 2/27/2014
This is our last day in Bangkok. We can leave the bags in the luggage room until we have to leave for the airport around 9:00 tonight for our overnight flight to Tokyo. We eat our last meal at the hotel. We will check out before noon. Before then though, we will do some of the sites in the area of the hotel, that way we can get back easily and get out of the room. There is a "happy Buddha" wat nearby as well as a king’s palace that we can visit too. I figure we will see these then find a café or bar to wait for Jackie before grabbing our bags and making our way towards the rail. Like I said before, our hotel is not really near most of the touristy areas. I mean, there are no metro stops nearby and much of what is close is not really in the guidebook’s lists of must-sees. For the price, this hotel was fine. At $30/night I will take this over a more expensive room downtown or a hostel on Kao San Rd. for that matter. Yes, this place did have some downsides, but when it comes to "you get what you pay for" the price more than made up for the shortcomings. A good suggestion for sure.
Our first stop after breakfast and packing our bags is the Vimanmek Mansion which is a former king’s palace. When you go to the Grand Palace, as we did earlier in the week, with the ticket stub you can get into Vimanmek for free...and we like that. As we walk inside the gates, the first thing I notice is that the grounds are impeccably kept and there are no cameras or cell phones (along with a host of other items) allowed in any of the buildings. You have to pay a 20฿ fee to rent a locker to keep stuff. Not wanting to spend the money on what I deemed an inconvenience, I figured, hey, as long as I don’t take any photos, no one will even know I have a camera, right? The signs are everywhere listing and adding to the list of forbidden items or actions. As we ascend the steps into the teakwood mansion I hear a familiar sound...a metal detector! I glance ahead and I see a pat down search of all visitors who will then pass through the detector. With a 2000฿ fine for getting caught with a camera, I decide to bite the bullet for the 20฿ and head back to rent a locker before causing a commotion. Once inside the mansion it is very beautiful and a shame that no photos are allowed. It is the world’s largest teakwood mansion and houses the personal collection of gifts and art of one of Thailand’s kings. 

Vimanmek's teakwood palace. More beautiful inside...if you can get your camera in!

There are rooms decorated with amazing furniture, artworks, and vases and other ceramics. After the walk through we see what else is on the premises. We find a photo exhibition hall that is somewhat interesting. It turns out that the king is quite an accomplished photographer and these photos are a collection of his personal collection of his own work. It is interesting to see so many candid shots of the royal family. Our last stop in the compound is the Throne Hall that houses a lot of precious metal and artworks. There are even a couple of really amazing pieces of art. One type we saw is intricate patterns cut into dried buffalo hides and the other is that they would collect the wings from dead beetles that had a very metallic luster to them and use these wings to decorate pieces ceramics and metal vessels giving them a multicolored metallic look. Some pieces have only part of it covered by the wing covering to accent parts of the piece- making them quite beautiful. We agree that we have spent way more time in this compound than we expected to. It is close to 11:00, but we have both had our fill, declining the 11:00 English guided tour, we head straight back to the hotel to checkout and store our luggage until we need it tonight.
After checking out and paying up, we head to Wat Benchamabophit which is also near to the hotel. This is the shrine informally called "happy Buddha". The prayer room has an altar with a large, well lit golden Buddha, who looks somewhat happy. 

Stained glass in the "happy Buddha" wat

Getting our picture taken with a "happy Buddha"

Photos are allowed and there are several guests in the room. Waiting for the right moment to shoot can be tricky. After the main shrine, we walk over to the perimeter with several sculptures of Buddha in many different stages of life. 

the many life stages and teachings of the Buddha

After we see our share of different styles we head back to the street to try to catch a tab to the Victory Monument (the closest subway station). Actually, we want a tuktuk because it will be cheaper and then we will take the skytrain to Jim Thompson's House. Jim Thompson was an American who came to Thailand in the 1940's and introduced the rest of the world to Thai silk. He was very popular and well liked by the Thais and built a house- actually he bought 6 adjacent houses along a canal and connected them, making each house a different room in his home. 

two (of the six) houses joined to make Jim Thompson's one large house

He was an architect by trade and a collector of art. He went missing and presumed dead in 1967 and his house was turned into a museum. It costs 100฿ entrance and includes a mandatory guide through the house. You can wander the grounds by yourself and take photos, but you can only go into the house with a guide. After the tour, my feet are aching terribly from walking on the hardwood floors without shoes. 

one of the only indoor places photography is allowed at Jim Thompson's house

I journal while El goes to the gift shop. I meet a couple from Canada and ask for advice from fellow travelers for recommendations of things in this area. Both of them heartily recommend...the mall L not only is that where the protests are, but if I want to shop, which I don’t, I want to wait until Tokyo. So much for that idea. During the tour Jackie texts us that we can meet her now. She is on her way and we can go find some food since El and I haven’t eaten since breakfast and it is almost 3:00 now.
We meet Jackie and although pretty much everything on our list is done, El suggests our last dinner to be at a restaurant called Cabbages and Condoms. Really. That is what it is called. We saw it in the guidebook and made a mental note of seeing what it was all about. It is easy enough to find and at this hour it is not crowded. I order some dumplings and an entrée of chicken with green curry. We had not seen any glowing reviews of the food here, but also nothing to keep us away. We read in one place…”go for the cause, not for the food.” So we did. 

How could you not be curious what the food at a place called "Cabbages and Condoms" tastes like?

in case you are unclear and need a refresher

It turns out that a guy who was instrumental in bringing women’s reproductive health to many areas of rural Thailand started this restaurant to both educate and raise money for his NGO that still works throughout Thailand. Some restaurants give you a chocolate when the bill comes, here you get a gender specific condom. An interesting concept and the food wasn’t bad either. We are able to sit and write most of our postcards before leaving and give them to Jackie to mail for us.
For our last stop before the hotel to grab our bags, we decide to hit one final street food stall which is close by.  We want to get dessert at a place called Nam Kaeng Sai Khun Muk on Sukhumvit Soi 38. Our initial attempts to get a tuktuk are met with laughs when we tell them how far we are going. Eventually, we decide on the skyrail and walking combo to get to where we need to go. The address is just steps away from the Thuong Lo stop on the BTS. Jackie asks one of the vendors for our place and is pointed just meters away. As we approach, it is quite obvious we are at the right place. A full array of ingredients to be topped with shaved ice for a most refreshing treat in this oppressive humidity. El and I each get a bowl with rice noodles, jellied lychee, marinated water chestnuts, topped with coconut cream and the shaved ice. 

the street food version of the dessert we made at cooking school

street food sweets

It was every bit as good as what we made at cooking school the other day. Cool and refreshing, I can't think of a better way to end our time in Bangkok. After this, we will take the BTS to Victory Monument, catch a taxi to the hotel, grab our bags and have the taxi take us to the Airlink rail for a train to the airport. Jackie has been so helpful ad a great one to hang with in this city.
We get our taxi and since they are metered, you are less likely to be refused a ride. Our driver agrees to take us to the hotel. Along the way we ask if he would be willing to make the stop and then wait for us to go back to the metro stop called Phaya Thai station which is the closest Airlink stop. There is an express train and a local with 9 stops. The express only runs once an hour and costs twice as much as the local. Since we missed the express by 4 minutes, we are defaulted to the local. No matter, we have plenty of time. The train is relatively full with travelers and airport workers. At 45฿, it is about 1/4 the cost of a taxi. We arrive with plenty of time to spare. We rearrange our bags and say our goodbyes to Jackie and make our way through security. It has been a good visit.

Conclusion
As we leave Bangkok, I try to think if there is anything I wanted or expected to do that I am leaving without doing. Something that I can point to and say, "next time I want to do that" or “I really wish we had made the effort to do this”. And I think I can comfortably say there is not. With all of the research I did, I think I came up with a pretty good over view of experiences. Ranging from palaces and Buddhas, to walking side streets in search of the street food side of Thai cuisine, to learning to cook it ourselves. I think we are both happy as we leave and cross one more world capital off our list of places to see before we die. Although I wouldn't mind seeing some of the more remote areas of the country, it will probably not be enough to lure us back. I would go back to visit Jackie, but as I have already discussed with her, I would hope we would meet in a middle point the next time. I am glad we went, we had a great time, but I think our visiting time here is over. Oh, we did not make it to the penis shrine...if only for the comedic value and the stories to be told afterwards. I promise it can be on our list- for next time.

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