Traveling to Bangkok in the middle of April is much like I imagine it would be to lock oneself in a Ziplock bag, and then put that Ziplock bag in the microwave. It’s the kind of heat that I remember from the worst days of summer in Chicago, when you walk out of the house and instantly slump over, like a wilting flower. The sweat accumulates even before you step outside, as if in anticipation of the coming onslaught, and at the end of the day you really wish your shower could somehow produce ice cubes. It is also the type of heat that I recall from a similar latitude, (just one year ago!) on the island of Zanzibar. It’s a heat that, surprisingly enough, I have come to be able to live with while traveling. At least for a little while.
The difference between Zanzibar and Bangkok though, is two-fold. In Bangkok, there is air conditioning. In Bangkok, there are 7-Elevens. Put the two together, and even if you’re out visiting sight after sight, wat after wat, accumulating a layer of sweat that exceeds the amount of liquid you have ingested- at least you know that every block, you can pop in to the local quick-mart for a quick-cool. And when I mean they are on every block, I am not exaggerating. In Chinatown, in fact, there are two 7-Elevens directly across the street from each other. Perhaps they have contests to see who can sell the most Slurpees.
It is the weather in these dog days of summer that has for centuries caused the Thais to celebrate. However they are not celebrating the heat, they are celebrating the cooling monsoon rains that are to come, hopefully sooner rather than later. The three-day festival of Songkran, or Thai New Year, is April 13-15 every year, which conveniently (or not, depending how you look at it) happened to be the day I arrived in Bangkok. Though Thais follow the modern Western calendar, they continue to celebrate their own New Year, and with such vivacity I was beginning to wonder what life it like without Songkran. I knew that it was New Year before I arrived, but I had no idea what that would entail.
Perhaps unbeknownst to both Thais and Nepalis, the Songkran celebration runs parallel to the Hindu Holi celebration that I just experienced while in Nepal. Both heralding the coming monsoon rains, almost all festivities are based around 1) water and 2) colored paste. Whereas in Nepal Holi was mostly a sport for children, the people of Thailand have no such age/ability limits for their participation in the event. In fact, the reserved Thais seem to take this holiday as a once-yearly way of doing whatever the hell they want, without reservations. Everyone in the family, from baby-boo to 85-year-old grandma, is armed with a neon Super-Soaker- and they know how to use it. However, water pistols are not necessary in the art of soaking anything that walks. Cups, bowls, buckets…you name it, I saw it used. Perhaps the most entertaining folks to watch were the cruisers- gangs of friends driving around, crowded in the back of their friends’ pick-up, smearing white paste on buses, spraying innocent bystanders, and generally having a raucous good time.
My first encounter with Songkran was my second day in Bangkok, when I decided to go for a walk early in the morning. I wasn’t really sure where I was going, and was pretty sure I would walk into a water trap. I originally kept my distance from all tuk-tuk drivers, small children, and those sneaky grandmas, until I started sweating so profusely that I didn’t care if I ran into a human-induced waterfall. As if reading my mind, I turned a corner and was immediately spotted by 5 teenage boys and their 3 younger siblings, loading up a 100-gallon barrel with a hose from their house. Hesitantly, they all held their buckets and looked at me. I could tell they weren’t sure whether to do it or not. They really wanted to, but I was not Thai, and I was the only person on the street. I continued walking towards them, put down my bag, and said, “Yep, go ahead!” To which no less than 6 buckets were dumped over my body. It felt fantastic. No wonder people like this festival.
Three days and many saturations later, I got a little sick of it. Like colors on Holi, the Thais smear some type of white-paste-substance all over your face, as a type of blessing, but it’s really just nasty. If it was just a water festival, I would be fine with it. But the paste is gross. I avoided most contact with it, except that at one point an adorable little Thai boy asked me if he could give me some- and how could I resist that? For the greater part of day 2 and 3 though, I stayed inside. The folks from my hostel and I took cabs where we wanted to go (tuk-tuk, or open three-wheel vehicle, would have been a bad idea- I saw people getting hosed), and lived a relatively sheltered couple of days. I met some good folks, and we formed a posse that would have been intimidating had we needed to use it for our protection. Luckily, we never did.
Today Songkran is over, leaving behind only a filmy white paste over the city’s streets and buses. Today was the first day I realized that Bangkok does not just induce a sensory overload on holidays, it induces it every waking moment of its existence. Contrasts of colors, smells, and textures fly at you at an alarming rate in Bangkok. Thai food is loved world-wide for its use of complements- sweet and sour, spicy and salty, rich and light- and the same can be said of nearly every aspect of life in Bangkok. A clapboard house on stilts abuts a small river in Baan Krua, a Thai Muslim community known for hand-woven silk, while one block away wealthy trust-fund babies shop at Siam Paragon for the latest in international couture. A taught-faced old man sits cross-legged on a mat, selling religious amulets to browsing traders in the shadows of the glistening gold and mirrored spires of Wat Pho, while inside the temple complex the massage parlor is packed to the gills, paying customers ready to have their body kneaded and twisted to a fine pulp by some of the country’s finest masseurs.
My mind has not stopped racing, attempting to process everything I am seeing, for the past four days. I only have two days left, and I’m hoping on the plane ride to Melbourne I will finally be able to relax. Though I’m sure there are far crazier cities in Asia, Bangkok twists your mind with such cultural, spiritual, artistic, musical, natural, and material complexities that you hardly know who you are at the end of the day. I’d like to tell you what I think about this place, but I haven’t gotten that far yet. So I’ll just give snippets.
Today began early, when I met a couple fellow hostellers to go to the Chatuchak weekend market, about a 45 min train ride from the center of town. Massive and sprawling, the lanes of the ‘JJ’ (for short) Market wove from knockoff designer clothing to classy boutique, from Thai spices and herbs to buckets and buckets of fake plastic fruit. Perhaps my favorite find of the day, the baby animals section. There were week-old puppies (huskies! wiener dogs!), kittens, guinea pigs, and my personal favorite- bunnies, with the girl bunnies dressed in tutus. After an interesting snack of crushed ice with brown flavorless jelly and brown sugar (definitely doing that at home), we headed back to the hostel, for fear that we would die in the belly of the beast and never be heard from again.
I switched hostels, to a place closer to the ‘sights’ for the next few days, as I haven’t had a chance to see anything yet (as I was avoiding the wet-festival). Then Natasha, from London, and I decided to get massages at Wat Pho, a temple/Buddhist monastery and school, and also the premier massage school in all of Bangkok…if not Thailand. As I have only had one massage in my life, and never had a Thai massage, I was thoroughly excited. I got even more excited when I realized it was only $13 for a full hour. This may not be the only massage I get while here.
Each massage room was lined with at least 25 beds, roughly double-bed size, and all right up next to each other. The rooms air-conditioned and smelling sweetly of tea tree oil, I could have cared less that I was going to be lying a foot away from some old rotund man also getting a massage. After changing into the supplied pajamas (I mistakenly wore a dress), I clambered onto the bed, and things began.
The best way that I can think of to describe a Thai massage is a combination of deep tissue, chiropractics, and forced yoga. Basically, the masseuse just has at it. She gets all over ya. Using her body against yours most of the time, she pulls, pushes, and rotates your appendages into formations you didn’t even know were possible. She cracks your knuckles, she pops your back, and she sits on your shoulders. At one point she slowly pressed her thumbs into my ears until I felt a little lightheaded, and then she popped them. It was all very interesting. It is much like I would imagine a personal trainer would have you do to yourself, but she did it for you. Ah, it was fantastic. Plus, at the end they give you a little bottle of iced green tea!
After that we had a wander around Wat Pho, the home of the world’s largest reclining Buddha. He was huge. There were no signs in English telling us exactly how huge, but I’m sure you could look it up online if you were that interested. Though he was impressive, by big Buddha standards, it’s the outsides of these Wats that impresses me. There are buddhas everywhere, hundreds of them at ground level, and then above your head loom the temple and school spires, reaching to the sky in incredible mosaic and gold shimmeriness. I know that is not a word, but I can’t think of any other way to describe them. Being in Thailand makes me wonder a little more about Buddhism, as I was pretty sure the Lord Buddha taught non-attachement… and all these wats seem mortifyingly extravagant for such a humble dude. Not to mention counter-productive to what he was trying to accomplish. Either way, they are gorgeous works of architecture, and definitely require a second trip tomorrow morning to take some more photos.
After mowing down some buttery-delicious mangoes, Natasha and I headed to find the flower market and then hop a boat back to Chinatown, where we planned to have dinner. Completely lacking my normal intuition about cardinal directions in this city, we asked some police men where the flower market was, and got both a handshake and “welcome to our country” from the uniformed men. Possibly the best interaction with police that I have ever had, I am starting to believe all this stuff people say about the Thais being extremely hospitable. Even yesterday, I was just blankly staring at a map in the subway, for no reason at all, and had two people come up and ask me if I needed any help. And this is not like the help of Nepal, where they wanted money and/or something in return… it was genuine concern for my well being. Amazing.
We made it to the flower market, another sensory overload, where the scents of roses and carnations, orchids and marigolds mixed with fish sauce and veggies frying, as the market closed up and vendors began to make their dinners. There were more flowers in one place than I have ever seen in my life. Little old ladies were crouched around buds, sewing them into ornate offerings, and people scuttled about them with armloads of bouquets to take home.
We made it onto a river boat, quite a nice way to get out of the street and crowds of the city, and wound our way around the Chao Phraya to Chinatown. We intended to find a ‘street food market’ that I had read about, but I neither knew where it was nor had brought my book with me, so it was kind of a shot in the dark. We had been walking all day in flip-flops, and were thoroughly exhausted, sweaty, and in dire need of food. After about an hours worth of walking around what we thought was Chinatown, we were ready to give up. Nothing was open, we didn’t see any street vendors, and no one was out walking. Where in the world are Chinese restaurants not open all the time?? When we had almost given up hope and were about to go to the only soup shop we saw, we spotted a sign in English. The sign announced that we were entering “Yaowarat Road” one of the “busiest food hovels in all of Bangkok”. Fifty steps later and we were taken directly to China. Blazing lighted signs announcing restaurants, a street full of taxis, buses, and people, and street stalls- hundreds of them- lined the sidewalks. We wondered where it all had come from, as not a ½ block earlier we had seen no one around.
The only thing that was open on the street were the few restaurants, expensive places serving rare seafood, but street stalls filled nearly every inch of sidewalk and curb space, so that in order to see what they all were, you had to walk in the street with the traffic. Perhaps fortunately, not many of the stalls signs were in English. If they had been , we may never have decided what to eat. Instead, we got BBQ pork buns (bao) for about $0.50 as an appetizer, and then moved on the BBQ kebab section ($1), where each kebab had 4 huge pieces of chicken, two peppers, a pineapple piece, and a tomato. We wanted something to finalize the meal, like noodles or soup, but nothing of the sort was in English. Slightly scared that we would unknowingly be fed shark fin, we took the risk and went to a soup stall. Pointing to the one picture on their sign, we pantomimed that we would like what was photographed (a clear soup with some noodles, and some other little surprise balls, etc.). The man looked at us a little funny, shrugged, and pointed to the two prices- did we want the $1 or $1.50 option?