Bangkok is a sprawling, lusty titan of a city with vendors hustling food, services and goods on the street. Every square foot is alive with energy; the sights and smells are strange and exhilarating.
The sidewalks bustle with too many people. The traffic is fierce. The city pulses with energy while people and businesses try to keep up with the plummeting baht, which was trading at 38 to the (U S) dollar when I was there.
Food vendors were everywhere, whatever time of day or night I was out. At some stalls children were eating or sleeping under the tables. Wonderful fresh calamari is deep fried while you wait, hot vegetables and rice or battered pastries are all available for next to nothing.
The streets are lined with tables of merchandise, and bargaining is expected. Most peddlers name their asking price, and when you say it's too much they hand you a calculator and ask "How much you pay?" A watch I was looking at started at B700 (US$20) and ended up at $8. Well-made copies of Polo or Versace pullovers sell for $5. Everything from workout suits to tableware is available for bargaining. The most surprising haggling I did was in pharmacies. A medication I take regularly costs $33 in the U S. One drugstore asked B280 (US$7.40). Another asked B400. When I told him I could get it for B280, he matched the price. Another started at a whopping B600 for the same thing, then grudgingly came down to B280.
I got a manicure and pedicure for US$3 total. A Thai massage costs between US$7-20, depending whether you get it at the Hilton or a small shop on a side street. I tried a few places, but the best massage I had in my life was at Prosiam (72813-5 Petburitudmai Rd). I'd already indulged in several glasses of wine, so I was feeling warm and drowsy when I decided to stop for a massage.
"Massage – but no sex," I told the cab driver.
Bangkok is famous for young people who serve the most intimate pleasures of visitors. Each evening I saw girls sitting at lounge entrances or gathered in the lower-numbered sois of Sukhumvit Road, exchanging gossip and tossing pretty glances at the men who passed by. Hustling whatever "goods" are at their disposal is a chance to survive, get ahead, or get out. I heard that it's possible to hire "a wife for a week" for US$50-$100.
The cab driver took me to a dark place in an alley with a scruffy lobby and no non-Asians in sight. When I entered, the receptionist saw dollar signs and asked for B1,000 (US$25). I don't mind paying a little more than the locals but not three times the going rate. We finally settled on a two-hour session for B600 (US$15), and it was well worth it, although I had my doubts in the tacky anteroom where I traded my shoes for a ticket, like at a bowling alley. I changed into white pajamas, was led to a draped-off cubicle and told to lie on a pad on the floor. A middle-aged woman came in, put her hands together, bowed slightly, and proceeded to give me the massage of a lifetime. Starting at the feet, she pulled and cracked the knuckles of each toe. For two hours she crawled over me in the little space pushing hard on the deep muscles along pressure-points. She even stood on me occasionally. It felt great!
I wanted to meet a monk I had read about and heard he might be residing at Wat Rakhang Khositaram. I hired an interpreter named Han at a travel agency in the train station. She was 20 years old, spoke English well and charged $5 an hour for her help.
In the cab Han told me about a wild time she had at Pattaya Beach the night before. "There is a festival," she said, "parties in the street and everywhere. It's only two hours by bus. Come with me, we can share a room."
It sounded interesting but I suggested we decide after our mission was accomplished. We got out at the Chao Phraya River and waited for a boat. The wharf stank of fish and was crowded with families packed into tiny corners. The fresh air over the water was welcome as we crossed quickly to the other side.
Han and I walked toward the Wat (temple compound with monks' living quarters) past vendors of every kind. One had a tub of water writhing with dark, smooth snakes. Han explained that believers bought them and released them into the river – to dispel bad luck before entering the temple.
I ascended stairs to the dormitory porch and faced a small elderly man draped in orange robes, sitting on a straight-back chair. We spoke briefly. He said it took at least ten years to master the rigorous discipline, but I was welcome to live at the wat and study with him. He was not the teacher I had come to meet, but he was very kind, and I thanked him for his time, asked his blessing and bowed as I backed away. Han followed me.
"Do you mind if I don't return with you?" she asked.
"I'll pay for a cab back to your work or home, or I can drop you off on my way," I answered.
"No, I have decided to stay here and go to the temple to pray."
"Certainly," I said. "Let's see what I owe you . . . ."
"Oh no, I won't take any money," she replied. "You've done me a great service bringing me here. I feel this is the place for me."
When I insisted on giving her a portion of her earnings at least, she adamantly refused. Life is anything but predictable.
On the night train to Surin I met two Australians. We played poker and drank Singha beer till midnight when I retired to my compartment. We chugged east-north-east until 5am when the conductor knocked on my door, "Surin, madame."
The air and streets of Surin are clean, and the people exceptionally friendly. It's a lively town with good-looking schools, a wat that sparkles in the sun and huge statues of elephants in every town circle. In mid-November it's crowded with visitors to the "Elephant Roundup."
I had missed the festivities by a week, so I hired a driver to take me to the Elephant Farm. The place was closed. Seeing my disappointment Somkiet drove down narrow dirt roads until he saw some elephants in a field.
We went to a nearby settlement of primitive platforms with corrugated roofs. A woman who looked 200 years old sat spinning raw silk into thread. A baby rocked in a hammock behind her, an old man sat on the floor clothed in a loincloth. They spoke with Somkiet, chewed some twigs and called to someone in another hut. A teenage boy and girl emerged, and after more talking, laughing and chewing the boy went to the fields. Ten minutes later he returned riding an elephant. He dismounted, strapped a dubious looking seat on the elephant's back with rope wrapped in rubber hose. The old man motioned that I should climb a rickety ladder to the roof and jump onto the seat.
Everyone clapped when I landed, including myself. I felt like Alice "very high up indeed!" I could see a vast expanse of bright green fields with a gridwork of irrigation canals. We stepped into the water and two snakes left its surface for the muddy depths. When the water reached my elephant's belly, he thrashed his trunk around, and in an attempt to spray his back, he splashed me.
We covered a lot of territory, waving at paddy workers who smiled up at us under bamboo hats and bundles of rice sheaves. We passed a young mother, splashing in the cooling water with her naked baby. We tramped along forest paths. The sun was strong, the sky was magnificent, the air was fresh and full of life. It was a glorious afternoon. The family asked B500 (US$13) for my four-hour adventure.
On the drive back to Surin I took out a jumbo pack of gum and offered a stick to Somkiet. I chewed one too, then added another to the wad. Before we reached town we had split all the gum between us and were gnawing and laughing hilariously. He's a nice young fellow who went out of his way to make a visitor's day a success.
That night I hired a bicycle-rickshaw for a cruise around town. Whenever I got out to walk or enter an establishment, my driver escorted me and held my hand like a child. Who ever said that solo travel is lonely?
Tourism brings much needed money to Thailand, and so much is given in return for a few dollars.
Money: Thai baht C$1 = 25 baht (May/99); US$1 = 37 baht; Euro 1 = 39 baht
Lodging – Bangkok
Lodging – Surin
Food – Bangkok: Inexpensive. I ate street food fearlessly by getting it straight from the hot oil.
Food Surin: Thai and western food.
Transportation: Taxi Bangkok to city B500-650 (US13-17) from desks inside terminal; outside, B350 (US$9). Average city trip, US$1.30. FACE="Symbol" · City bus .75 cents, #6 runs along Sukhumvit, has A/C and takes no stand-up passengers.