Ayutthaya

Today was a road trip 80 km north to Ayutthaya, the second capital of the Kingdom of Siam (Khrungthep is the fourth).  On the way we stopped at Bang Pa-In, one of the summer palaces of the Chakri dynasty, especially popular among Rama V and Rama VI’s reigns.  The palace grounds are a hodge-podge of architectural styles with Victoria, Chinese, Thai, Italian and Grecco-Roman buildings.  Right: Brad and Silvia atop the Italianesque viewing tower at the Bang Pa-In Palace.


We travelled with Benny, an American who was on our bicycle trip yesterday.  Originally from Houston, he currently is working as a contractor in Baghdad and was in Thailand on holiday.  He’s a very nice guy and definitely not what you might expect from a civilian contractor in war-torn Iraq.


While in Ayutthaya, we spent the afternoon with Kari Harmon and visited briefly with her husband, Ron.  Former Union Language School students, these Texans are doing missionary work with the Baptist church. 


Kari took us to a restaurant they have found that served very nice Thai food, and then we went into the Historical Park to look at the ruins of the old capital which were destroyed by the Burmese in the mid 1700s.


We encountered heavy rain showers as we finished lunch which abated by the time we reached the ruins ten minutes away.  This dropped the temperature significantly, making it the coolest visit I’ve had to Ayutthaya yet!


After visiting the historical sights and trying some roti sai mai (crepe-like roti with “silk” – spun palm sugar threads) we went to the elephant karral just north of the city.  The elephants that tourists can ride in the Historical Park are actually housed at the karral and their mahouts (keepers) live there, too.  While it isn’t a tourist attraction, per se, you can walk right up to the pens and touch and feed the elephants.


I’ll add some additional commentary and some video footage of me being accosted by elephants when we return from Kanchanaburi on Friday.


 


Above: Chris and Kari interact with the elephants.

Bicycling to School

Monday evening after writing the entry for this blog, we took Brad and Silvia back down to Ratanokosin Island to have dinner at Thip Sa Mai, one of the oldest and most famous pad thai restaurants in Khrungthep.


Thip Sa Mai offers exactly seven items on their menu, each of them a variation on pad thai.  The best, in my opinion, is number seven – pad thai phiiset (special pad thai) – which is served wrapped in a paper-thin omelette.


Brad and Silvia enjoyed the experience and Tawn showed them how to doctor their pad thai the Thai way: a little sugar, some ground peanuts, a spoonfull of chili-spiked vinegar, a dash of fish sauce, and a pinch of dried chili flakes. 


Oh, and a squeeze of lime and a handful of bean sprouts if you like.  Yummy.

Tuesday morning we headed out on a Spiceroads bicycle tour.  This one included the floating market about 80 km southwest of Khrungthep.  The floating market is a tourist trap – witness the boat selling Louis Vuitton knock-offs!.  Especially if you arrive anytime after 7:00 am.  But in-between the tourist-oriented kitsch you can get an idea of what life is like along the canals.  Vendors still sell fruits and vegetables from boats, noodle soup and khanom – desserts.  We only spent about thirty minutes at the market itself before taking off via long-tail boat for an hour ride out to the Mae Khlong river and down to another town where we began our 30 km ride.

Pictures from the trip:


 


Left: Brad and Silvia overlooking the floating market.  Right: Passing a temple along one of the canals.


 


Left: Interior of a royal temple with the interior done in teakwood carvings.  A picture of the King when he served in the monkhood.  Right: At a ruined temple that has been overtaken by a large tree.  Inside is the Buddha image with strings tied to it as part of a prayer ceremony.


 


Left: We stopped at a Catholic school in the midst of a rain storm and two students came over to talk with the farangRight: Later on we stopped by a small 4-room school house and spend about thirty minutes talking with the students, who then sang us the “Goodbye” song (Below).

Ratanokosin Island

Unusually cloudy and cool weather – it almost felt wintry by Khrungthep standards – made it the perfect day for an extensive tour of Ratanokosin Island, the heart of old Khrungthep.  This is the island that was first settled during the establishment of the city as the fourth capital of the Kingdom of Siam.


From Brad and Silvia’s hotel we took a canal boat to the old part of the island.  The canal boats offer a breezy, inexpensive form of transportation and allow you to look into the lives of a different part of Khrungthep society.  In most cities in the country, a canal-front house is prime property.  Here, it is where the less well-off residents live.  Left: Brad and Silvia on the Thanon Borapat bridge with a canal boat behind them.


 


A short walk away, facing the Democracy Monument, is the Rim Khob Faa bookshop – a source of a wide range of media about Thailand and the monarchy.  There, we rented MP3 audio players for a self-guided tour of some of the lesser-known but tremendously interesting sites of Ratanokosin Island. 


The tour has been compiled by Siam Soundtreks, which is trying to preserve the heritage of the city, especially those lesser-known districts that politicians would like to raze without consideration of the history nor or the residents who have called that area home for generations.


The narration of the tour was enhanced by lively background music and sounds that helped to recreate the atmosphere of times past.  The pacing of the tour was just about perfect: you’d be walking along a street and just at the point where the narrator said, “notice the automobile mechanic shop on your right; there are usually one or two classic Astin Martin cars in the garage…” sure enough, we’d look to our right and we were just walking up to the shop.


Along the way we made a stop at the less-traditional 7-11 store for some cold water.  On their front door was an advertising sticker showing some “world cup fever” products including the traditional “German Junior Bite” corndog.  Ah, globalisation.


Our tour took us to Wat Mahan, the Chinese Tiger God shrine, the Brahmanistic Giant Swing, Bangkok City Hall, the district where monk supplies and Buddha images are made and sold, and Wat Suthat which is said to be the most aesthetically perfect temple in Thailand.


 


Left: Brad and Silvia in front of the Bangkok City Hall.  Right: Wat Suthat, the Giant Swing, and a work of public art on Kor Tor Mor Square.


After about two hours we completed the tour, so took a taxi the short distance to the Grand Palace.  With a quick lunch to energise us we hired a guide (turned out not to be the best value) and went through the grounds of the palace. 


The overcast skies were interesting; this is the first time I’ve been there when it hasn’t been sunny.  It is definitely more pleasant this way.  Also, by going in the afternoon after lunch, the crowds were lighter at the temple, the morning tour busses having moved on to other sites.


Left: The library building in the Grand Palace.  Right: The Number-Two monk in all of Thai Buddhism is escorted into the Temple of the Emerald Buddha to pay his respects.


 


After the tour we went over to Wat Po (Temple of the Reclining Buddha) and then crossed the river to Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn).


 


Left: Brad and Silvia in front of the royal reception hall in the Grand Palace.  Right: dancing in “traditional” Thai costumes in front of the Temple of Dawn.


Afterwards, we stopped for ma praaw – coconuts – as a refreshing afternoon drink.



Today: Trip to the floating market and bicycling through the coconut and banana plantations.

Issan Food and Italian Phone Calls

As can happen at the start of a trip, the travellers are enthusiastic and gung-ho: “Yes, we’ll be up early and go see all the sights,” they say.  But then a little jet lag or just the relaxing effects of being on holiday took hold and it was about ten in the morning before I heard from Brad and Silvia.


Our main destination today: the Chatchuchak Weekend Market.  This huge bazaar provides thousands of vendors an opportunity to sell everything from clothing to household goods to candles to artwork to anything under the sun. 


The older section of the market is extremely crowded and can be very hot even though most of the aisles are covered.  The newer section has aisles that are wider and includes better ventilation, but overall the market is still a warm place to be.


Thankfully the weather was threatening to thunderstorm so large dark clouds sheltered us from the sun most of the time.  It didn’t rain until later in the afternoon, a good thing as the market floods when it rains too hard. 


Silvia shopped and shopped, Brad bought a few things and tried to moderate Silvia’s purchasing enthusiasm.  A fun time was had by all.  After a few hours we stopped at Foontalope, an outdoors but covered Issan (Northeastern Thailand) style restaurant.  The name of the restaurant means “dust covers everything,” referencing not the hygenic standards but the type of food: typical road-side truck stop cuisine.


This means fried chicken, som tam (green papaya salad), laarb muu (minced pork salad), Issan-style sausage, and khaow nieaw (sticky rice).  Tawn provided me with a cheat sheet so when we showed up and were waiting for a seat I was able to go ahead and place our order (in Thai) with the manager.  Left: Brad and Silvia standing in front of the open-air kitchen where dozens of kilos of som tam are produced each hour.


While waiting for our food, Tawn called us.  He was with his mother, whose mouth was “itching” to speak Italian, so I handed the phone to Sivlia and she and Khun Nui visited for a few minutes.  Hopefully she’ll be able to join us sometime during Brad and Silvia’s visit so she can scratch that itch some more!


After about four hours at the market, we had exhausted our resources – both financial and energetic – so we headed home via the subway.  With the memory of yesterday’s massages still strong, Brad and Silvia indicated they’d like to go back for more.  So later in the afternoon they walked over to our apartment, getting caught in a sudden and brief thundershower, and then we continued to the massage parlour after the rain stopped.


Right: The owner of the massage parlor (or perhaps the husband/boyfriend of the lady who owns/runs it – we’re not sure of the relationship), a dapper middle aged Thai-proficient Japanese man, gets a massage with Achi, the parlor’s mascot Chuhuahua puppy, who falls asleep in his lap.


Brad and Silvia enjoyed full-body Thai style massages while Tawn and I had foot and leg massages.  It would be very easy to do this every day!


Thoroughly relaxed, we continued to dinner at T Restaurant, a well-known seafood restaurant that is owned by the family of one of Tawn’s former United Airlines colleagues.  We enjoyed curry crab, black pepper crab, river prawns in vermicilli, and salt-baked fish. From left to right: Patti (Tawn’s former colleague), Poun, Tawn, Silvia, Brad, Tam and me.


 

The first stop after the hotel was a massage.  Just a simple, traditional, 60-minute Thai massage at our local massage parlour over on Sukhumvit Soi 23.  Not a fancy place, to be sure.  But the people are friendly and the massages are inexpensive. 


Once Brad and Silvia called to say they were unpacked and refreshed, I walked over to the Bangkok Botique Hotel, five minutes up the street from us.  Arriving, I took a seat in the lobby to wait for them and the busboy, recognizing me from earlier in the afternoon, told the front desk that they should ring room 210 for me.  Overhearing him, I told him in Thai that I had called them already.


So this piqued his interest and he started talking with me in Thai, calling over the three ladies at the front desk so they could see this farang attempt some Thai.  I was doing well until he asked how long I had been in Thailand, to which I mispronounced my answer and said that I had been here “about eight round objects,” substituting the word duang (classified for stamps and round objects like planets) for deuan (months).  They thought that was very humourous.


Brad, Silvia and I walked back to the apartment and visited for a few minutes while Tawn got ready to go.  Then we walked a few blocks in the other direction over to the massage parlour.  Having stopped by the evening before to alert them to our arrival, a staff of extra masseuses were on duty.  Brad, Silvia and Tawn opted for the Thai-style body massage while I went for the leg and foot massage, my “usual.”


For the hour that I was being massaged, I didn’t hear any screams of pain coming from upstairs so I took that as a good sign.  Meanwhile, I practiced my Thai a bit more with the masseuses downstairs – they were teasing one guy who had spilled his dish of massage lotion, then they teased me because I kept glancing at the clock on the wall which I figured out eventually was broken.  Then the owner’s chihuahua came over to play with me for a while, sitting on my lap and nipping at me with razor-sharp teeth.  Finally, he callmed down and just laid his head on my arm and zoned out.


When Brad and Silvia came downstairs an hour later, they were completely relaxed and I could tell immediately that we had converted another two people to the laid-back Thai lifestyle!  They’ve decided they want to do massages every day.


After the massage we drove to Harmonique, a Thai restaurant located in and outside of a century-old shop house in the older part of the city.  Surrounded by kitschy Chinese and Thai antiques, the food is very good albeit westernized. 


Service was less attentive than it used to be: the waiter was a bit brusque (unusual for Thais) and our request for a second bottle of water later in the dinner went unfilled even though we asked twice. 


All in all, I think it is a nice place to take visitors on their first night.  Kind of like entering Thai cuisine on the shallow end of the pool!  We’ll go for full-fledged Thai style dining today.


Afterwards we drove into the old city, went down to the river and saw Wat Arun lit by floodlights on the western bank of the Chao Praya River.


 

Arrivals

Brad and Silvia arrived from Italy this afternoon in one piece.  Although we managed to be on opposite sides of the arrivals hall, we found each other eventually.  They’re getting settled into their hotel right now, Tawn is taking a nap, and I’m blogging.


Their trip in was smooth and it seems they had an interesting seat mate for one of the flights, a Turkish woman who had studied in both the US and Italy and is fluent in both languages.  She told them a lot of things to see when they pass back through Istanbul on their way home, when they’ll have about nine hours of time to spend there.


After Brad and Silvia are ready, we’ll take them to our local massage parlour and then dinner at Harmonique.


Also received an email from Ty (another Xangan) who is passing thorugh Bangkok on his way to Cambodia and will arrive this evening.  Don’t know if schedules will allow it, but perhaps we can meet up for dinner or drinks afterwards.


Speaking of comings and goings, Masakazu and Mitsu, the Japanese couple we know, are back in town after being in Japan for a few weeks.  They’ve just moved into a new apartment, leaving the 49th floor of the State Tower because after a small earthquake we had here a few months ago they decided that the swaying was too noticeable and the seismic construction standards nonexistent. 


Markus was in town for twenty-four hours between his trip to Japan and a Germany-US-Canada jaunt.  Hopefully Tam and his sister Poun will be able to join us for dinner tomorrow despite Markus’ absence.


Well, Brad has called and they are ready to go.  So I’m off.