Wednesday, April 14, 2010

In Bangkok with Nut

April  4, 2010 Bangkok

I've been back in Bangkok for almost a week now and it's been fabulous. Nut has been staying with me and we've been having lots of fun. She took several days off when I arrived and we did some great stuff during that time, market visits, Thai massages, tours of some temples. She's been working for the past several days but will not work during my last three days in Bangkok, which overlap the Songkran Festival, the Thai New Year celebration. (Water throwing is common during the festival. (Read more here or watch a YouTube video shot on Khao San Rd. last year) Songkran should be interesting. We want to get massages again, take in a couple of meals at some upscale restaurants, and enjoy Songkran. Our plan is to buy super-soakers to use in self-defense. When I first heard about Songkran I thought to myself that it would be a fun way to stay cool in this infernal heat. I'm always too hot anyway. But then I learned they use ice-water. Friends who have been through it tell me to put my cell phone and wallet into Ziplok bags and prepare to get wet and stay wet.

With Nut at Wat Arun

Ever vigilant about avoiding the sun, Nut always carries her parasol during the day
The first touring we did last week was to visit two famous Buddhist temples located close to one another but on opposite sides of the Chao Phraya River, Wat Pho and Wat Arun. Bangkok, and indeed all of Thailand, is thick with temples. They are extremely ornate and are often surrounded by a complex of smaller temples and shrines, gardens, and monks' residences.

Wat Arun window detail

Wat Arun detail

Wat Arun detail - the entire stupa is tiled with china plates as shown here (and above)

Wat Pho detail - gold leaf and tile abound
Nut laughingly disguises herself as a Muslim at Wat Arun

Next day we caught a water taxi from the Phra Arthit Pier and headed downriver to the next to the last stop. Because Nut gives massages all day she often gets to the point where she could use a massage herself. Someone had recommended this place and she suggested we go together. It's located right on the Wat Chanyawat Pier. The massage was terrific. A full two-hour massage cost 120 baht -- about 4 bucks! Hard to believe if you're used to paying $50-60 for a one hour massage stateside. By the time we were finished the intense afternoon heat convinced us to go directly home and get into the air-conditioning. Showers help too - I'm in the shower at least 4 or 5 times a day, basically every time I come in off the street. We moved from the Phra Arthit Mansion the other day to a cheaper place, the Pranakorn Inn a short distance away, which is as almost as nice but at 400 baht per day (about $12 USD) costs less than half of what I was paying there. Our room doesn't have hot water but in Bangkok during March and April, believe me the "cold" water is plenty warm enough. We were going to move downstairs when a room with hot water became available but we soon realized it wasn't necessary.

Another photo from Wat Arun - I call it Buddha Row
Immense reclining Buddha at Wat Pho
Another note on Bangkok involves water or at least, washing. I have been practically living in my white sleeveless shirt and tan shorts. In this heat I simply can't wear anything else. But every night I hand wash both items in a bucket or the bathroom sink because they are filthy from the polluted air and heavy traffic. It amazes me when I see how dirty the water is from just one day in the sweltering heat of Bangkok.

Eating lunch with El at the Wat Don Wai market
Last Saturday we went to the big floating market at Wat Don Wai. Nut and I first taxied across the river to Central Plaza where we met Nut's sister El. Then we took a minivan from there to the market. I hate using minivans ever since that trip Albie and I made from Koh Chang to Pattaya and this ride was no exception. We waited until the van, not a big, comfortable Toyota Commuter but a much smaller one, was jammed with 13 passengers before we departed. All I can say about them on the plus side is that they're fairly cheap.

This market was fantastic. Myriad vendors selling all sorts of, to me at least, exotic foods. Deep fried chicken and duck, sushi, all sorts of fruit, several varieties of fish prepared in many ways, smoked, fried, steamed, etc., pork, greens, baked goods and other confections, liquid refreshments: an awesome variety. If you're a food lover, Thailand is the place to be. Thais love food and can be found eating at any hour and in all places. In shops the clerks are always eating with their food containers positioned in every available place on the counters and desktops. And this goes on all day. Nut, who weighs in at about 105 pounds eats something (noodles, soup, fruit, chicken and rice) every two to three hours. I kid her by saying she must have a tapeworm in her stomach that gets most of what she eats because she eats more than I do. Honestly. We eat a good breakfast at about 10 am but by the time I walk her to work on Rambuttri Road at around noon, she's ready to have a bowl of soup at a local shop.

Okay, back to the market -- we've been walking around scouting what we'll buy for the evening meal at her sister's. Nut has assured me that El is an excellent cook so we follow her here and there as she inspects what's available. But before we buy anything, we need to eat lunch, naturally, so we adjourned to a bustling floating restaurant on the river and took a seat. During our walk I had mentioned some foods I like, things that looked good to me in the market. Asparagus was one thing I mentioned. Thai women take all of this very seriously apparently. Before I knew it there was an asparagus salad in front of me, asparagus and kung (shrimp). We had a squid dish and kung pao gai (chicken and fried rice), cuttlefish, along with some other tasty dishes whose names I can't recall now. At one point Nut turned to me and asked, do you want to try something different? Sure, I said. She ordered a plate of deep fried duck's bills. There's not much meat on a duck's bill but what's there is plenty good. They're on the white plate near Nut's right hand. It was a fantastic meal. And Thais stay at the table until everything is eaten, no matter how long it takes.

Nut and daughter Duy Duy preparing morning glory for the table

Afterward we went over to her sister's for the evening meal. I hit some badminton with nephews Nat and Not, had a few beers and watched the ladies, including Nut's daughter Duy-Duy (pronounced Dwee-Dwee) prepare the food. (note the names I'm dealing with here, no kidding: Nut, Nat, Not). El cooked up a fabulous Thai meal; tom yum soup, stir fried veggies with shrimp, and the centerpiece, deep fried morning glory. As I said earlier, if I mentioned a particular food it would magically appear on the table. Similarly, I had eaten a morning glory salad with Nut at our favorite local restaurant,  Take-a-Seat, the night before, had commented on it to El, and so it appeared on our evening menu. While at the market we had purchased two big bunches of morning glory stalks. Had I known how labor intensive the preparation of morning glory was I would never have mentioned it to anyone. Above is a photo of Nut and Duy-Duy slicing the morning glory into thin strips. The leaves aren't used for this dish but the stalks must be sliced into quarters or even into eighths if too large. The whole process took three women over an hour to finish. They chatted and gossiped for the whole time while I played the amused onlooker and guest of honor.

Wednesday, April 14th, 1:00 pm

Now here it is already, the day before I fly back to the states. I want to finish up this entry so Nut and I can take in a bit more of the Songkran festivities on our last day together. I have no photos of any of the celebrations because of the water you're constantly getting dumped on you or sprayed with. It's a bad scene for cameras and cell phones. I left mine at the hotel.

Dressed up in our Songkran shirts

Yesterday we went to meet El at the Phran Nok market where she works selling homemade confections. The plan was to hang out there until about 5 pm when she would close her shop and then go to Khao San Road to "play in the water." While we were there I hung out with the market people, all friends of El's for many years. Songkran is the Thai New Year so everyone was in a party mood. Even without understanding any Thai I was made to feel welcome and a part of the festivities. We drank beer and shared food all through the afternoon. Every so often there would be a huge commotion on the street and Nut would hustle me out there to watch. It was sort of like our Fourth of July but better. People thronging the sidewalks, strings of firecrackers ripping the air with loud reports, people dancing in the streets throwing water from buckets or cups, super-soakers, even garden hoses. Every so often someone with a pot of colored chalk paste would run up to me and with a big smile, say "Happy New Year" to me, the only falang in the entire neighborhood, and smear this paste on both sides of my face. The proper response is to laugh and return the greeting, shaking their hands or bussing the women on the cheek as the case may be. Everyone was super friendly. People turn out with boom-boxes or even set up big loudspeakers on the sidewalk where they then tie up traffic as they dance to rock music, loud and bass-heavy, in the street. An absolute ball.

At intervals a trailer or cart appeared carrying a Buddha or a group of monks (who also throw water I should add). This day is meant for cleaning things, houses, apartments, personal lives, even sacred statues. I joined about 50 people as they pulled a wagon behind them carrying a Buddha that folks would throw water on. The wagon was pulled along with two ropes, sort of like a huge tug of war. I was invited to join the party and it felt good to be involved with these joyous celebrants. Everyone seemed to get a kick out of seeing a farang in this old Thai neighborhood, so far from the usual tourist hangouts.

Then back to the market: more food, more beers, more introductions as new people dropped by El's stall, more toasts of "Happy New Year", more chalk paste smeared on faces. During the midst of this one side of our big table was cleared to make space to cut up a bag of small, green eggplants for the next day's food. Everyone pitched in to help. Each vendor sells a particular food item but any of the nearby vendors will watch their neighbor's stall if the owner needs a lunch break or must run an errand. Likewise with the prep work for El's neighbor's food stall. El helped, the duck seller across the aisle helped, the ice cream lady helped, Nut helped. It made me sad to think about how isolated most Americans are from their neighbors these days. Being in Thailand is like taking a step back in time to the years when there were close knit neighborhoods in our country. Before the move to the suburbs forever changed the American way of life. One of the best parts of being in Thailand is witnessing the neighborliness of the folks throughout this friendly country.

Finally 5 o'clock rolled around and El made ready to turn over the store to her son, Ice, for the last two hours of the day. I had thought she and Nut and I would take a taxi to Khao San Road to take in the celebrations there. Instead, my good luck was apparently at work again, the guys from the next stall said they were going for a ride in their pickup and asked if if we wanted to join them as they toured the streets with barrels of water. Now try to imagine this as a way to have fun if you can. We hopped into a late model king-cab Toyota pickup, filled two 35 gallon plastic garbage cans with water, added 13 people to the bed (along with 5 in the cab), everyone with a soup bowl or small bucket at the ready, and then drove out onto the streets looking for trouble. What a blast! After the first 30-40 minutes we stopped at a house somewhere and refilled the garbage cans. But this time we went to the ice-seller and got two huge chunks if ice to add to the water. The down side of this is that now when water sloshed over the rim of the container, we got wet with cold rather than the pleasantly warm water at the start. Not everyone is fair game for a soaking either: moto drivers, old folks, anyone with a very young child, but when you come across a group of like-minded folks with water buckets at the roadside, that's the signal for the driver to slow down or maybe even pull over, for a huge water fight. Everyone gets soaked immediately! And everyone laughs like mad through the whole thing. Then when our driver finally pulls away everyone on both sides is all smiles yelling "Happy New Year". I haven't had that much fun in years.

We rode around for a couple of hours until we ran out of water. Finally we went back to the market and said our good-byes. Nut, who is not well insulated like me was chilled by the time we caught a taxi and rode back to our hotel to get dried off and warmed up. We did not immediately turn the aircon on, actually enjoying the heat for the first time. I had been soaking wet for much of the day, the only day in Bangkok during which not a single a drop of sweat trickled down my forehead. Every so often one of the other folks riding the pickup would ask, are you cold? I'd reply, hell no, I'm from Alaska! After a few minutes at 40 mph in the 90-degree heat my hair and shirt would be almost dry again. But it never stayed that way for long. What a fantastic experience for a visitor to luck into. Hooking up with Nut has led me into corners of Bangkok that I'd never have seen otherwise, introduced me to pieces of Thai life and culture that I'd have surely missed if not for her. She doesn't particularly like this photo because she has no makeup on but it's my favorite so I include it here.

This is my last day in Thailand and my last day with Nut. It will certainly be a bittersweet return for me. On the one hand, I'm homesick and want to see loved ones and dear friends again after my long sojourn. On the other hand, I'll surely miss Nut because we have grown very close in these past three weeks. It's also the end of the biggest adventure of my life. I left Alaska on October 29th. By the time I get back to Homer it will be close to the end of April. I came to love Thailand during that time and I will return here next fall. I plan to buy a Phantom to tour this wonderful country with my buddies from Alaska again. If Nut's plans come to pass she will soon be up north in Chiang Mai, which would suit me very well. I will hopefully be able to return by mid October to rejoin her and continue to discover what our somewhat improbable relationship holds.

So until October dear readers, that's about all I have to say on the subject of Thailand.  Friends have been telling me for years that this is a fabulous country to visit. At this point, I must say I wholeheartedly agree.