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Day 7 – A Bangkok Mosque Do List (Meeting Winai)

March 10, 2010

Dateline: Bangkok, Thailand – Wednesday, March 10, 2010

It rained this morning for the first time I’ve been in Bangkok. I lay in bed wondering if this was going to put a damper on my day. I had no plan. I’m a bit of a home body, so I could feel myself sinking back under the covers to laze the day away.

Just the thought of planning an activity made me tired. A museum? Massage? Shopping? A muay thai match? They’d all require research and planning.

I decided first thing I’d do is call Winai, the Thai American I’d met on the plane.

Using my broken Thai, I negotiated my way past a lady who answered the phone. Winai sounded tired so I kept telling him he didn’t have to come out if he didn’t want to. He kept saying he wanted to meet and asked if I’d had lunch. We decided to meet at 1p.m near On Nut station, the last stop on the BTS.

That gave me an hour to pick up the shirts from my tailor. Victor greeted me by name when I walked in the door. The shirts fit perfectly. I wrote a check out to “Cash,” thanked Victor, then dropped off my shirts back at Suk 11.

When I finally got to On Nut, I got turned around and ended up getting there a bit late. Winai, wearing a U.S. Postal Service t-shirt, greeted me with a handshake and smile. He donned his helmet and I hopped on the back of his small motorbike. He worked the manual transmission ably considering his feet were in special boots to help them rehab from surgery. The wind whipped through my head stubble as we darted through Bangkok traffic. He chatted casually, pointing out various landmarks.

I think that when people confront Asian traffic, they’re overwhelmed by the chaos. Cars are inches away from each other, scooters dart in and out of every traffic crevice, and drivers don’t bother with the suggested lane lines. Driving in Manila taught me that you have to simply survive. I like to call the overarching rule the “Two Corners Principle”: just take care of the front left and front right corners of your car and let everyone else worry about the rest. The principle works because no one drives faster than 35 miles per hour and, even then, that’s only in short bursts.

When you’re on a motorbike, however, it’s different. There are no corners to watch. Drivers can’t really see you. And, when you’ve got two people, the scooter drives heavy, making slow moves through tight spaces feel like you’re sitting on a row boat in a hurricane. There’s nothing like mortal danger to make you feel alive.

It was fun, especially since I didn’t have a helmet. Winai ended up picking up a green one from a Yamaha shop because he needed one for his girlfriend (not me). That should have made me feel better except I noticed that he only paid 150 baht ($5) for it. Slipping it on my head was like trying to sit in wooden rocking chair built for 2 year olds.

As we careened through traffic, I really wanted to pull out my camera to take video and pictures. That’d have spared me the thousand words I’d need to describe the experience. I decided that I liked holding on for dear life and couldn’t spare the hand.

We headed to Seacon, a large mall. Winai and I walked around looking for a noodle soup place that served halal (Winai’s Muslim). As I slowed to pace Winai’s hobble, we reflected on the differences between malls in Asia and the U.S. In Asia, the mall is a vibrant, crowded place. People just go to hang out. You’ll see kids running around, their parents in tow. People just sit around and talk. Stalls sell food and odds and ends just like on the street. It’s like, because of the heat, they’ve tried to fit all of outdoors inside. A typical mall in Asia is probably the same size as the bigger ones in America, but with twice as many stores. No one just goes to the mall to buy stuff. You have to eat, browse, and chat.

For example, even though Winai was hobbled by surgery, we stopped in a few shops just to look around. He chatted up people selling cars, home entertainment systems, and health products. There were a lot of people even though it was mid-afternoon on a Wednesday. When I was at the mall with Uncle Jesse on Sunday, there were so many people you couldn’t go more than a foot in a straight line.

In America, unless you’re in high school, malls are more utilitarian. You come to a mall to buy something. You may browse, but unless you’re female, you probably don’t hang out. Even then, women tend to go to the mall to “go shopping.”

The food’s different, too. Mall food in the U.S. tends to be corporate. In Asia, there are chains, but there are way more mom and pop stalls. The place we ate at seemed to be run by a Muslim lady. Winai ordered me fish ball and beef noodles. Even though he thought I was crazy, he snapped a picture of me and my food.

Afterwards, we headed off to King Rama XI park. Winai noticed a mosque on the way and we stopped so he could say his prayers.

Winai washed up and I took a seat on the large, empty marble floor. Sitting to my right was a guy swaying back and forth, apparently reading the Koran. Behind me a man lay on his back, head wrapped and snoring loudly.

Winai couldn’t kneel, so he said his prayers from a wooden chair. Another man joined him, knelt facing east, and said his prayers. I’m not real tight with Allah, so for all I know taking pictures of prayer is no big deal. I decided to play it safe and snap shots on the sly. Hopefully He didn’t notice.

When Winai finished up, we went to King Rama IV Park. The place is huge. Because he can’t move that quick, Winai insisted that I explore without him. I didn’t want to make him wait, so we hung around the entrance. He showed me where, on weekends, there’s a street market, free lessons for aerobics, dance, tai chi, kung fu, and muay thai. It reminded me of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.

We headed to an internet café so I could e-mail. Note for all you gamers out there, if you thought PC gaming was dead, then you haven’t been to Asia. The place was filled with kids of all ages. I was the only person over 20 years old. They were mice and keyboards to play L4D2, MW2, other FPS’s, RTS’s, browser based games, and stuff I didn’t recognize. I have no idea whether these were all legit copies or not, but they were into it. Every kid was paying 20 baht ($0.60) per hour to play. A 4 year old (really) helped me start up the computer and enter my access code. I uploaded the previous day’s entry and was out of there.

Winai gave me the option of returning to my hostel via a nearby BTS station or a long boat through Bangkok’s canals to another BTS station. I was a little worried I’d get lost, but Winai said I’d be fine.

Long boats are those colorful, thin Thai boats with the long propeller shaft sticking out the back. They can seat four people across at their widest point. The driver sits at the back next to a large turbo diesel and works a metal rod that runs the accelerator, steering, and transmission. They’re surprisingly quick on the river. In the canals, though, they move slowly so more passengers can collect at each stop.

Winai wanted me to experience a part of Bangkok most tourists don’t see. We sat on the small dock under an overpass waiting for the boat to leave. He chatted about how much Bangkok had changed and how, when he was a kid, he’d swim off this very pier. There was no overpass or mall or neighborhood, just rice fields. He wasn’t sad, just nostalgic.

The driver sleeping in the boat stirred from his nap, fired up his motor, and started boarding passengers. I thanked Winai with a handshake hug, promised to e-mail pictures, and hopped on.

The boat motored past plywood, corrugated metal shacks built next door to large mansions with air conditioners sticking out of every room. Here and there people worked out of makeshift shops selling snacks or groceries, the mom and pop version of the ubiquitous 7-11’s. Occasionally, we’d pass someone walking on the elevated concrete slabs that serve as the canal’s sidewalk. People would wave down the boat and hop on. If you didn’t know exactly where you were going, you’d have no idea where to get off.

When we got to the final stop, the remaining passengers disembarked, paid the driver, and scattered. I walked a quarter mile through a cramped street market to the BTS.

After a brief rest at Suk 11, I fought off my laziness and decided to trek down to Thong Lee for dinner. It turned out to be an excellent mom and pop place further off the main road (Sukhumvit) than I expected.

Having stuffed myself with fried pork with shrimp paste and sweet crispy fried rice noodles, I decided to walk the mile or so to Buanthip Thai Massage, a place recommended by Lonely Planet.

A word about Buanthip. It’s located in a town crawling with sex tourists. When I first walked up, I thought I might have made a mistake. Masseuses in pink polo shirts advertised the place, showing passing tourists the price lists for a massage. Any doubt I had disappeared when I saw a prominent “No Sex” sign behind the reception desk.

This place takes its massage seriously. It’s the only place so far that’s taken a scrubber and soap to my feet. There’s no music. There’s little chatter. It’s just real good massage. My masseuse did a great job toeing the line between pain and healing. A bit of back of the envelope math suggests that since I opted for a 2 hour session, I spent 12% of my waking hours being massaged. You’ll get no complaints from me.

Walking out of Buanthip at around 10:30 p.m., I realized that my day had gone from empty to full to the brim. From the perils of being helmetless on a friend’s motorbike in Bangkok to a contemplative long boat ride through canals to a great meal at a hidden gem to two hours of quality massage. I can’t imagine a much better 18 hours.

Stupid Travel Tip of the Day: Don’t ever plan anything, it works out better that way.

Not So Stupid Travel Tip: If you’re going to be in Sukhumvit shopping (and you probably will), I can wholeheartedly recommend Buanthip Thai Massage and Thong Lee. Both are within walking distance of BTS stations. Buanthip is next to the Amari Boulevard Hotel on Soi 5. Get off at Nana station. For Thong Lee get off at Asoke station and use the elevated walkways to cross Ratchadaphisek road. The restaurant is a bit of a walk down Soi 20 across from a 7-11. I wish I’d had a group of people with me at Thong Lee so I could have tried more stuff on the menu.

Programming Note: Uncle Jesse called me today and cancelled Friday’s trip to the chicken factory. His company said he can’t bring family members on Friday because of the impending red shirt demonstrations in Bangkok. He may try to reschedule when I come through Bangkok later this month.

Apparently the red shirt demonstration this weekend is a pretty big deal. Depending on who you listen to, the red shirts may peacefully protest or get violent and set off bombs or stage a coup. The festivities start Friday. The government is already publicizing road shutdowns and extra security in the newspaper. In 2006, I left Thailand a few days before the last revolution. I won’t be missing this one. Guess there’s something about me and overthrowing governments. Call me Mervyn, “Bringer of Coups.”

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Fran permalink
    March 12, 2010 6:48 pm

    A coop for a coup

    • March 13, 2010 12:12 am

      Indeed. I flee the revolution tonight (Saturday).

      Posts are forthcoming, but I’m running around doing errands in preparation for my departure for the southern islands. I may be doubling up on posts for the next couple of days as I find places to internet.

  2. Shining permalink
    March 18, 2010 10:28 am

    I think Winai is crazy for thinking you are crazy to ask for a picture with food. Tell him the crazies in America want food pix! And I’ve decided I can’t read your blog right before lunch…

    • March 21, 2010 6:47 am

      Unfortunately, the blog’s toned down the food bent in the last couple weeks, mostly because I’ve been in Thailand this whole time and it’s boring to take pictures of food you’ve already seen. That and I”m eating on the cheap so the food isn’t that exciting. Look forward to Cambodia!

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