Weekend(ish) Update 03: One Night In Bangkok, or Wat’s Up With the Ding-Dang Ping-Pong in Patpong? Vol. 2
Naw, but other stuff did happen in Bangkok.
So let us tell you about it in lurid and explicit detail!
For context, we had planned this trip in concert with our gracious Singaporean hosts, who were going there to meet some old friends who lived outside the city. Given that everyone had a few days off from class and work, we decided to make it a group project.
Due to recent changes in Al’s class schedule, however, we were forced to amend our travel plans (for the first of many times…thank you educational bureaucracy—cracker jack job!). This meant we got to take the 6:30a flight on Thursday instead of the more temporally-appropriate Wednesday evening flight we had originally booked. No biggie. As previously mentioned, getting up so early and hanging out at the airport can be inspiring.
We arrived at the very futuristic Suvarnabhumi
Spaceport Airport around 8:30a after an uneventful flight. The arduously long lines at passport control gave us time to be immersed in, and reflect upon, the glories of King Rama IX, the current regent of Thailand, who—in addition to attending to the affairs of state—finds the time to be an accomplished saxophonist, writer and inventor with over three patents to his name! We learned all of this via the Orwellian TV monitors positioned over each entry queue. Beware: The Big Thai is watching YOU!
After passing inspection from a very stern-faced lady—who we’re sure would not have taken kindly to that previous statement (the Thai people are very VERY allegiant and supportive of their royals, we discovered)—we made it down to the taxi queue, with none of the shenanigans we encountered in Bali. On our long ride to our hotel, what struck us most—other than the insane volume of traffic—was the unending and seemingly haphazard sprawl of the city. It extends as far as the eye can see in every direction, without any clearly-defined central core. Acres of low buildings are randomly punctuated by 60+ storey high-rises, and it’s rare that more than two or three of these appear on the same block. The high-rises are, however, striking in their modernity, and several caught our attention by pushing the boundaries of architectural design. Down at street level, the seeming calm of the city as viewed from the elevated expressway quickly devolves into a veritable clusterphoque of meandering main streets colliding at bizarre angles and bristling with innumerable side streets and alleyways. The best part is that there’s apparently only a handful of main streets (thanon), with virtually all other streets being named as secondary to them (soi). To make it even more fun, these secondary streets usually have their own sub-secondary streets. Here’s an example from Wikitravel that gives more insight than we ever could:
Thus, an address like “25 Sukhumvit Soi 3” means house / building number 25 on the 3rd soi of Sukhumvit Road. While the soi numbers on each side will always advance upward, the numbers often do not advance evenly between sides—for example, soi 55 could be across from soi 36. Many well-known sois have an additional name, which can be used instead of the number. Sukhumvit Soi 4 is also known as “Soi Nana”, so the address above might thus also be expressed as “25 Soi Nana”. The extension /x is used for new streets created between existing streets, as seen in Sukhumvit’s soi pattern 7, 7/1, 7/2, 9, 11.
As you can probably deduce, this expertly refined system makes mail delivery a breeze, and Bangkok’s postal system excels in on-time and accurate delivery.
Turns out, the reason for this seemingly random urban organizational scheme is the fact that Bangkok was originally more-or-less a floating city, built along the banks of the Chao Phraya river and its innumerable marshy tributaries. As the city developed, these tributaries became filled in and paved over, but their courses remained the same. Thus, the roads run like the tributaries they succeeded.
To avoid the confusing congestion, we often took the exceptionally modern Skyway elevated train system that makes the Chicago El seem like a steam-powered relic. This train was fast, clean, quiet, easily accessible and provided a great escape from the hustle and bustle down on the street.
And not that the street scene should be missed. It is a whirling, buzzing, honking, chattering cavalcade of color and visual texture, a mix of striking modernity mashed up against traditional lifestyles. Street vendors ply their wares on the sidewalks, food is cooked inches away from oncoming traffic, and between the relentless touts, tuk-tuk drivers and pickpockets, there is enough going on to keep you adequately distracted for days.
But we digest. Back to the story at hand.
We finally arrived at the hotel around 10 am, just in time to meet our gracious hosts for breakfast and wrangle the last bits of bacon off the buffet.
Our plan—based partially on the sage advice of the NY Times 36 Hours series (a great travel reference, by the way…except for their Pittsburgh suggestions…damn un-Funicular. But that’s another story)—had been to go templing and visit a few of the vast array of wats around the city. Given our exhausted state, however, we were easily convinced to attempt a go at a Thai massage, as that was our hosts’ first intention of the day and we’re flexible people.
We took a taxi and an hour to go the 10 or so blocks to the massage parlor, which was a nice, zen environment replete with candles, incense and bubbling water fixtures. We were taken upstairs to the massage area, which consisted of a hallway lined by small little rooms with thin mattresses on the floor (don’t worry, Ma, the sheets were clean). Handed a stack of clothing, we were instructed to change out of our street clothes into what turned about to be the Thai massage version of hospital scrubs. A few moments later, our two masseuses arrived, and that’s when the carnage began.
Thai massage, it turns out, is in no way pleasant. It’s actually about one red-hot poker away from what goes on in the basement of a Turkish prison. You lie there in your masscrubs and are basically squeezed, bent, pulled, smacked, twisted and folded in about whatever direction the masseuse fancies. I kept yelling out “Onomatopoeia!” (that’s the safe word that works at home), but it didn’t seem to help. And it’s not just you lying on your back while they touch you with their hands. Oh no, dear friends, it’s full contact. I never felt more like a jungle gym. It probably didn’t help that the girl working me over was all of 3’7″ and not an ounce over 75 pounds soaking wet. She was really throwing herself into it and I’m not sure who got more of a workout, me or her.
Al’s veteran rubber-downer, however, was a beast of a woman and at times I thought I could hear Al’s bones breaking under her assault. It was also humorous to hear the lady repeatedly belch while working. Apparently the rule of waiting 30 minutes after eating before getting back in the pool should extend to Thai massage. To add insult to injury, the two masseuses kept exchanging low and exasperated chatter that we can only assume was about us and our gargantuan proportions. And since their English was limited, the method of communicating new positions was to either physically move our limbs or to smack us and point to the other victim in an effort to encourage us to assume that position. After two hours of this brutality, we were done, and felt oddly relaxed. I was about to utter “Thank you ma’am, may I have another…” but figured it was probably wiser to walk away.
After our massage, we limped over to the Siam shopping district to grab some food. Here we bumped into a very talkative university student who was just as eager to practice her English as point us in the right direction. On her advice, we popped into a small local joint and had an amazing feast. A variety of spicy pork and chicken dishes along with heaping bowls of rice and big, cold beers, all for about $5 US. It’s nice to finally be in a part of the world where the dollar is actually stronger than the local currency. After lunch, we parted ways, our hosts going shopping while we headed off to the Jim Thompson House.
Jim Thompson was a former architect and OSS officer from Delaware who had been stationed in Bangkok at the end of World War II. Falling in love with Thailand, he stayed on after the fact, taking a great interest in the traditional Thai silk industry, which had fallen off in recent years. Through his American connections, he is credited with single-handedly reviving the entire Thai silk industry in the 1950s & ’60s, before mysteriously disappearing in the Malaysian jungles in the late 1960s. At any rate, as a Thaificianado, he bought several traditional Thai homes and had them dismantled and reassembled in Bangkok into one contiguous housing complex, which is now the Jim Thompson House and Museum. The place is a beautiful and quiet respite from the surrounding urban chaos, with large fish ponds and a variety of ancient and unique elements of Thai art and architecture on display. It should not be missed.
Rejoining our friends, we headed off for drinks at the Oriental Hotel, famed jewel of the city and exquisitely posh digs. We encountered some minor trouble with the map (can’t imagine why), so it took a little longer than anticipated to get there. Luckily, this also meant that it was sunset, which made our drinks on the waterfront all the more pleasurable. While not generally prone to tropical drinks, I found myself compelled to try a whiskey mojito—and for more reasons than the menu said that it was Pierce Brosnan’s favorite drink at the Oriental. Although, if it’s good enough for James Bond, it’s good enough for me. Finishing our drinks, we headed back to our hotel, grabbing some grub in the hotel restaurant.
It was at this juncture where we made the fateful decision to visit the Patpong neighborhood, where we learned a lot of things. Among them:
– Bangkok’s reputation as the place to go for plastic surgery is very well deserved
– 6,400 Thai baht is approximately $200 US, and is way too much to be expected to pay for four beers
– ping-pong is a completely different game in Patpong
– if the guidebook makes the effort to put a warning about not doing specific things, it should probably be heeded
Thanks to the graciousness of a particular bar host/ess, we managed to emerge from Patpong, thankfully no worse for the wear. We did, however, need to burn our clothes. And fumigate our hotel room.
Seeking to redeem our souls, we headed out on Friday morning for the temples we missed the previous day. We first hit Wat Arun, which is across the river from the main city and marveled at the level of intricacy and detail of the spires, which are uniquely adorned with sherds of broken pottery donated by the local community.
Taking a river taxi back across, we cheated our way into Wat Pho, to glimpse the gigantic Reclining Buddha, which was impressive in its scale.
By now our time was fleeting, so we returned to the hotel to gather our bags and make our way to the airport. All in all, we enjoyed Bangkok, though the noise, grit, urban chaos and having to be constantly on guard for scams did wear on us after a while.
In sum: you have to go there at least once, if not for the massage, then definitely for the ping-pong.