Saturday, December 15, 2007

An Impromptu Lesson in Muay Thai Boxing

It's a quiet night in Chiang Mai, a picturesque city in the north of Thailand. Usually home to a bustling nightlife, today is Friday of election weekend and the sale of alcohol is strictly prohibited during the three day compulsory polling. A number of restaurants were surreptitiously serving mixed cocktails in tea cups early in the evening but by eleven the police have visited most of the rule benders and closed them for the night. Not quite ready to cash it in my fellow traveler Mike and I head for a fairly unexciting late night snack of pizza and bottled water and begin the stroll back our guest house along the glassy east moat...
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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Banglamphu to Sukothai

Despite the lip service paid by travelers to the pursuit of authentic experiences and tourism geared only at what are ironically referred to as "non-touristic" destinations, there is an uncanny draw to the ever present tourist ghetto. Inevitably when the breathtaking beauty and mind-expanding culture of an exotic destination have taken their toll the backpacker begins to long for the comfort of overpriced beer and knock-off designer sunglasses. They long for Khao San Road in Banglamphu.

Leaving Sukhumvit I bus slowly through the chaotic Bangkok traffic to Khao San. Like residents of L.A., tourists in Khao San are defined by their disdain for the place. But whether because the hangovers last well past the checkout time at your guesthouse or the fact that the fifteen minute tuk-tuk ride to the bus station is likely to kill your whole travel budget, they simply can't seem to escape.
My initial objective was to set up camp for a few days and figure out the first leg of my journey, which had been shamelessly under researched, and possibly meet a few fellow travelers along the way. After two days in a pleasant yet astonishingly boring hotel and countless lonely treks up and down Khao San and nearby Rambuttri Road waving off an endless stream of touts and would-be masseurs I craved a change of scenery so I said goodbye to my A/C and roof top pool and moved to the impressively smelly and appropriately inexpensive Bamboo Guest House on the less maddening east side of town. The bed was rock hard, the bathroom shared, finally I felt like a traveler again.
Immediately things took a turn for the better. Soon enough I had a grassroots backpacker posse to call my own and even a hip hangout just off the main drag to while away the afternoon hours between sleeping and drinking--the only two viable pastimes in Banglamphu. I became a fixture at Sawasdee, a roadside quadruple threat (cafe, restaurant, bar and guest house) on Rambuttri, along with my new Irish pals Niall and David where we would sit chatting and drinking Nescafe, bottled water and, eventually, Singha and picking up the occasional straggler to join us for a round.
But it's not just the tourists partying this week. It's the week of the beloved Thai King's birthday and the local festivities are running full force. Most of the Thais in the city not to mention a few bandwagon farangs (Thai for gringo) don yellow t-shirts with the royal crest to honor their demigod, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, universally adored as a model of compassion and wisdom. Thousands of loyal subject pack the streets for hours in anticipation of the King's procession replete with Royal Rolls Royce to roll on by. I make a pilgrimage to his Grand Royal Palace to pay my respects and witness the awe inspiring temples and intricate mosaic work firsthand.
Gleaning information from my backpacking brethren the first part of my journey began to take shape and it was soon time to pry myself from Bangkok. After the obligatory perusal of the Palace and a few long nights of carousing with the boys, highlighted by our participation in an exhilarating twilight hour tuk-tuk race it was time to leave the hemp jewelry and hangovers of Banglamphu behind me for the culture road North.

I hop a taxi to the Northern bus station to catch a seven hour bus to Sukothai. The ancient Thai capital of Sukothai thrived in the 13th and 14th centuries before it's destruction and replacement by Ayuthaya, the predecessor to Bangkok. The new city, less than spectacular, has a few guest houses and restaurants and acts mainly as a jumping off point to explore the old city ruins about 14km west. I rent a bike and spend the morning touring around the red brick temple and giant Buddhas of the old city before the crowds begin to filter in.But one day in New Sukothai is plenty so it's right back on the bus, this time for a six hour ride to my next destination: the moated Northern city of Chiang Mai.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Dude, I'm in Bangkok

Feeling Right at Home

Shortly after the sun set over New York city I climbed into a taxi bound for JFK airport. The aircraft fled west and the dark earth wheeled below for twenty-four hours before the sun finally caught our heels over Taipei as we coasted toward the tarmac. Then a quick four hour flight from Taipei and I arrived Bangkok at about noon, midnight in New York.

I checked into a hostel on the outskirts of Bangkok in Sukhumvit. Clearly keen to western tastes they left a copy of Modern Woman magazine less than a year old on my bedside table. Needless to say, I felt totally at home. The room was clean, but at approximately $25 a night cost about quadruple the going rate for comparable rooms in Bangkok. On the bright side, it was only surrounded by clamoring construction sights on three of four sides.

But for better or worse I had prepaid for two nights and the HI-Sukhumvit would be home for two days as I explored Sukhumvit, a neighborhood in Eastern Bangkok named for the busy street bisecting it and home to a large expat population. After a thirteen hour nap I was feeling bright-eyed and bushy-tailed (read: groggy and disoriented) and ready to strike out into this exciting foreign city.

Sukhumvit Road, a major transportation artery, consists of anywhere from six to about twenty lanes of traffic depending on vehicle width at a given point. The highway is divided by the imposing skytrain tracks suspended high on massive concrete pillars the structure casts the street below in shadow. The street is lined with consumer electronics vendors, beggars, more Thai Massage parlors than Starbucks in Seattle, and at least one small elephant (pictured). There are a suspicious number of bald, overweight, sadly dressed men with high-heeled and make-up spackled young Thai women in tow. My kind of town.

My hostel is well on the outskirts of the neighborhood, but twenty blocks of hoofing it proves worthwhile when I come across a free concert at the large festival park in the center of town. The music itself was some kind of horrendous Thai equivalent to the Backstreet Boys to which I pray I never acquire a taste, but the real treat came in delving deeper into the park to the courts at the back where groups of local guys are playing Sepak Takraw.

Q: What do you get when you cross badminton with Thai kickboxing and basket weaving?

A: The most bad ass sport ever.

Two teams of two contort themselves into groin defying positions over the concrete court to spike a bamboo ball on the opposing team across the net using only use their feet and heads. The player pictured here was cut like Bruce Lee and covered in Dragon tattoos, not to mention that after this manuever he landed on his feet. Bad ass factor--off the charts. I looked on and swooned heterosexually for about forty five minutes watching the epic match before venturing on.

Further back I came across a small skate park with about twenty or thirty young shredders trying their best to gleam the cube. Hoping for another killer photo op I stood around conspicuously for about ten minutes as the wiry skaters did a whole lot of clumsy sweating and falling. If the next Tony Hawk comes out of Sukhumvit, he was taking a break that night. Having had enough of being an awkward onlooker I started out for my next destination to, well, to be an awkward onlooker.


The lurid Soi Cowboy is a small strip of scandalous bars and nightclubs somewhere off the main drag of Thanon Sukhumvit. I can only imagine that the author of my guidebook felt guilty giving specific directions, because while it was recommended as a compulsory introduction to the world famous Bangkok nightlife, I walked by it four times following his vague directions before I actually found the place. Rounding the corner from a fairly bland street suddenly it's like Mardi Gras meets Vegas and throws a bachelor party in an alley about a hundred yards long. Signs in pink neon tower above a street flooded with scantily uniformed Thai girls beckoning visitors into the bars and clubs lining the sidewalks. Most of the establishments sport blacked out windows and curtained entrance ways. I begin to wonder what the hell I'm doing in a place like this sober and alone.

I walked up and down the strip once looking for a milder venue and was about to give up when an open door revealed a relatively non-threatening bar at the back of which a five piece band of Thai musicians were rocking out to Dire Straits. Their rendition of Money for Nothing was nothing short of impressive, albeit a mildly ironic choice given the venue (Money for nothing, and your chicks for free? I don't think so.) Owing not at all to the beautiful bikini clad Thai go-go dancers lining the stage to my left, I just couldn't pass up the opportunity to document this new cultural experience, you know, for posterity. I sat and ordered a Singha--oh how I suffer for my art.

Perched awkwardly on a barstool I attempt to make conversation with the gentleman across the table from me, but he seems to prefer anonymity. I was beginning to think that my time here would be short lived when in walk Alfred and Bill. Expats from England and Australia respectively and well versed in Bangkok nightlife they have pity and take me under their wing. Alfred is, apparently, a lawyer, artist and screen writer who works in marketing, knows Steven Spielburg and figures he best head to Hollywood soon because every film that's been produced in the last twenty years is "absolute shite" though whether he intends to change this, or get in while he can still sell his lousy scripts is unclear. Bill, an English teacher, doesn't say much other than, when I inform him that I lived Sydney for a while, to reply, "Sydney is absolute shite". He was from Melbourne.

Onstage, for our listening pleasure, one of the dancers joins the band and rips out a shreiking rendition of Guns 'n' Roses' Sweet Child O' Mine. Meanwhile Alfred is screwing up his face and jutting a massive hairy white belly out at the girls walking by our table. Breathtaking. Soon the fictional one a.m. closing time has come and gone as our trio knocked back bottle after bottle of Singha. When I finally stagger back to my hostel as the night sky begins to turn grey I do it with a smile. This promises to be an interesting trip.