Saturday, December 29, 2007


The ancient capital of Siam, Ayutthaya, makes for a great day trip out of Bangkok. Only 85km north of the city and easily accessible by bus, or in our case, third class train, it's an easy trip to go back in history.

Once there, you can have your option of modes of transportation, like these crazy tricked out buses that were common on the streets.

We opted for a carbon-friendly slower paced form of wheels and rented one speed bicycles for the day for 40 baht, about $1.30. We rode around all day and explored 5 different temple ruins, and there were many more to see had we more time.

Ayutthaya saw many kings of Siam rule their dynasties from 1350 and leave legacies of grand temples and palaces. After the Burmese sacked the capital in the 1700's, the city never regained its glory and slowly crumbled away. Today there are numerous temple ruins to visit within a very small area, making for a full day of terrific concentrated sight seeing.

They built prangs and chedi in veneration of Buddha and the structures are supposed to contain sacred remnants of Buddha himself. There were an awful lot of prangs and chedi so I'm not sure how that all worked out but many of them are still standing and still considered very sacred.

Of the thousands and thousands of remaining Buddha statues, most are missing the heads and other parts due to looters throughout the ages.

One head that was left behind is now one of the most famous images from Ayutthaya as its been engulfed by tree roots at Wat Phra Mahathat.

This is all that remains of this one at the same temple.

More headless buddhas.

Wat Chaiwatthanara was the perfect place to see the sun beginning to set and the prangs were lit with the soft glow of the late afternoon.

This was the last fun outing for me in the Bangkok area. Michael finished his TESOL course and we hit the road over the weekend so I'm sitting in a cafe in Luang Prabang, Laos buzzing from an iced Lao coffee and taking advantage of their wi-fi for 5000 kip (50 cents). The crazy German Robert is still tagging along so we'll all find something fun to do tonight for New Years Eve. Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Like no other Christmas

Spending Christmas away from family and in a predominantly Buddhist country could be a lonely experience but actually it ended up being quite amusing. First of all, our friend Robert Schwarz from South Pole joined us so it was nice to have company for the holidays. He and I went out on Christmas Eve day to do some last minute shopping and look what he found:
We thought we left ECW gear far behind us but we found a store where you can buy a Canada Goose big red parka with a "Canada Goose Arctic Program" patch on it. Here in Thailand you can buy knock-offs of anything from any name brand article of clothing to DVDs of new movies showing in theaters to Rolex watches. I had no idea there would be any demand for down parkas here but then again, it probably doesn't have real down in it. It's only 2700 baht (roughly 90 bucks) so you can get your own big red if you're nostalgic about your old issued gear.

The only aspect about Christmas that seems to be of any importance here in Thailand is the tacky commercial shopping part.

All of the traditional carols play non-stop in all of the businesses and tree decorating has ascended to a whole new level.

We weren't too concerned with trying to recreate a traditional Christmas Eve celebration in Bangkok although plenty of upscale hotels and restaurants offered fancy turkey and roast beef dinners for tourists and ex-pats.

Instead we had seafood in a coconut and other scrumptious dishes at a fabulous restaurant called Cabbages and Condoms, a very elegant Thai dining establishment with a mission. Part of the Population and Community Development Association, proceeds from the restaurant and gift shop go to support programs to raise awareness about family planning and to promote condom use.

This place has outstanding food, a good cause and a great sense of humor.

Santa is decked out in a suit made from condoms.

And next to him are his caped super hero elves.

This one also has body armor made of birth control pill packets.

And of course their Christmas tree is festively covered in prophylactics.

After dinner, our check indeed came with condoms instead of mints. This display offered more but I have no idea what they're trying to imply with their choices. The "Democrat" size was in a plain white wrapper and manufactured in South Korea while the "Republican" size came in a rainbow colored wrapper covered with Thai writing.

Notice that our table has condoms under the glass. I thought it was a perfect way to spend Christmas Eve and if you can't spend it with family, might as well surround yourself with a little family planning instead.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Weekend at the beach

I was hoping that our quick weekend getaway to the island of Phuket would provide some interesting blogging material but predictably, the resort destination is not so much a Thai cultural experience as it is as exercise in vacationing with thousands of European tourists.

I love a nice beach as much as any Swede or German and I can understand why we're all drawn to the beautiful white sands of Kata and Karon beaches.

You can rent a deck chair that comes with an umbrella and little table for 100 baht (about 3 bucks) for the entire day. It only took about half an hour walking on the beach at 10am to get a burn on my shoulders. I wasn't quick enough with my 55 SPF sunscreen.

The water was delightfully warm and clear, perfect for cooling off when you've had enough of the chair and umbrella. Long tail boats for hire take people out to nearby islands, which we would have done had we more than 48 hours to spend in Phuket.

When you get tired of the beach, the little roads are packed with hundreds of businesses all with signs in several languages, none of them Thai. Almost all of the restaurants advertise "European food" and you can have your pick of German, Scandinavian, Italian, French cuisine.

I still go for the Thai food, like this place where we had a traditional breakfast of rice soup. This is actually a bunch of separately owned establishments all offering pretty much the same thing with the only difference being the color of the table cloths.

Phuket felt more like a tropical Disneyworld than Thailand. At night, this Dino Bar was packed.

Or maybe it was more like Vegas. We heard another Thai Elvis singing at an outdoor restaurant on Friday night (or maybe it's the same guy, different night?). He was singing "Green, Green Grass of Home" and sounded like the King except he couldn't quite get the "green" without a touch of accent.

The 2004 tsumani destroyed property and took lives but Kata and Karon beaches suffered less damage than other parts of the island. Now they're building more and larger hotels at a furious pace. I doubt there's an agency like OSHA in Thailand but that bamboo is probably stronger than it looks.

So I enjoyed my pina colada in a young green coconut, got sand everywhere and am nursing a sunburn just like everyone else. We all need places like Phuket to indulge while we're on holiday and Thailand knows how to deliver and does it well.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Wat Pho

I had been walking past Wat Pho (or Po) going to and from my massage class and I finally got a chance after school one day to go into the temple and explore what's behind the white walls.

This is the oldest and largest wat in Bangkok and it also holds the record for the most images of Buddha. Wat Pho was the site of the first university in Thailand and remains a center for the study of Thai massage and traditional medicine.

There are chedi or pagodas creating a skyline of spires. Four enormous ones represent a reign of a different king. Chinese porcelain tiles cover the chedi forming ornate mosiac patterns and each one is different in detail and color.

The grounds have gardens and lots of statues including fierce guardians and peaceful little monks.

The most famous attraction of Wat Pho is the largest reclining Buddha in the world.

An impressive 46 meters long, the head alone is 15 meters high and towers above the visitors as they walk past.

The feet are also gigantic, 3 meters high for each foot and 5 meters long. I think I came up only to about the 4th toe on the bottom foot.

The toe pads were my favorite part. And the soles of the feet are inlaid with mother of pearl depicting the 108 auspicious signs of Buddha.

Here's the backside.

The walls of the rooms housing the Buddha are just as interesting as they are covered with paintings like this:

And along the wall opposite Buddha's backside is a long row of bowls. You drop a coin in each bowl for good luck so there's usually a rhythmic sound of change clinking as people walk by dropping half bahts in each one.

And I'm pleased to say that yesterday I passed my practical exam and am now certified in basic Thai massage. At the end of the 30 hour 5 day course, you perform a complete massage in front of an instructor and must finish in one hour. I tested with a group of young giggly Thai women and when we all passed, they were delighted when I did high fives with all of them.

I wonder if learning Thai massage is like learning Spanish...if I don't keep using it I'll probably forget it so I suppose I'll have to keep practicing on willing recipients. Any takers out there?

Monday, December 10, 2007

Commuting to school

While Michael is busy with his TESOL class, I decided to enroll in a Thai massage course so now we're both students during our time in Bangkok. Here is what my commute to school entails:

I walk about ten minutes to the Skytrain, an elevated subway-like train, and ride for just three stops, getting off at the end of the line at the river. The Chao Phraya river is like a pulsating artery through Bangkok, a source of water for agriculture, a feeder for a canal system supporting homes and commerce and it also provides an important form of transportation that beats the exhaust fume-choked streets of the city.

I hop on a public water taxi like this one and for 13 baht (about 40 cents) I can ride up and down the river.

The boats are usually pretty packed with locals commuting as well as tourists who are trying to get the full-on Thailand experience as they use the river to get to popular sites like the Grand Palace and Wat Po.

You have to be very quick to get on and off the boat as it docks, unloads and loads passengers then pulls away from the dock in a matter of seconds.

The ride is never dull as there are all kinds of boats going by and buildings and temples on both sides of the river. Elegant-looking boats owned by big hotels like Sheraton ferry hotel guests around right next to rusty, worn-out wrecks that look like they should go under at any moment.

Like the country of Thailand, the river Chao Phraya is full of contrasts that I always find fascinating. There are fancy riverside hotels like this one with their own private boats and piers.

And just a few hundred meters down the banks you see sights like this:

This is actually a more typical scene along the river and it reminds me that Chao Phraya is not just some tourist attraction for westerners like me to enjoy a "quaint" boat ride on. It's a major living and breathing hub for a city of 9 million people, many of whom live on the banks and use the river to bath in, wash things in and unfortunately, as a refuse drain.

I get off at the Tha Tien pier and walk through a little market that is always lively in the morning with deliveries being unloaded while street vendors cook up soups, noodles and other unidentifiable dishes to order for the breakfast crowds.

This is primarily what is for sale here...

...every kind of dried fish and squid product you could ever hope for. It's a very fragrant street.

My class is at the Wat Po Thai Traditional Massage School. It's based at the famous wat, or temple, where the giant Reclining Buddha lounges, although the massage class is in a building outside of the temple grounds.

This is THE place to learn Thai massage. The classes are full of Thais learning the art, plus a few farangs (foreigners). We're learning five basic massages and like a martial art, it's a very precise choreography of body movement, positions and actions that always follows a set sequence. You use your thumbs, fingers, palms, elbows, knees and feet to apply pressure along lines of the body that correspond to different aspects of health. There are also some really amazing stretches that you do to the recipient like passive yoga.

I must say that Thai massage is not my favorite form of can actually be quite painful with all of the firm pressure if it's done right. Part of the learning for us students is to let others practice on us then we take our own turn doing the same. Each day I receive about the equivalent of 4-5 massages and believe me, I'm sore when I go home.

So after taking this course, maybe I'll hang out my sign offering Thai massage by an expert from Wat Po...but I'll probably just keep my regular day job instead.