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Day 43 – Goodbye, Thailand (One Last Taste)

April 15, 2010

Dateline: Bangkok, Thailand – Thursday April 15, 2010

So far, traveling has been sort of manic depressive. I’m not talking about my mental state, I’m talking about the state of the trip. Some days, like the chicken factory are full of activity. When I sit down to write about it, I don’t know where to start I have so much content. That’s manic.

Some days, like yesterday, are slow. I think of them as a recovery period from intense activity. Sort of like I how I like to exercise. I prefer intense periods of activity followed by periods of leisure. The dull, painful monotony of jogging isn’t for me.* Same goes for travel. Regimented, steady movement from site to site seems boring. There’s no variation. I prefer intense amounts of activity followed by a few days relaxing and settling in to a place.

I bring all this up because today was a sprint day. That’s because yesterday, I was a lazy traveler and I needed to make up for it. Also, today was my last day in Bangkok.

I love Thailand. There’s no getting around it. To me, it’s what the Philippines could be if it gave up the diesel, got its tourism act together, and fixed its political system. (Wait a minute. . . scratch that last bit about politics.)

Anyway, today I tried to cram everything I find fascinating about Thailand into one day. I thought I’d break this up into categories, that way you can see what aspects of this country intrigue me.

The Spiritual

Today was the last day of songkran, Thailand’s three-day celebration of the new year. The holiday occurs during the hottest time of the year and involves a lot of water. Most Westerners know it as Thailand’s water festival. It’s a time of waging water war–where people hurl, shoot, and hose water at strangers and friends in the streets. It’s nearly impossible to get from one place to another without getting soaked.

There’s a quieter, more meditative side to the holiday, though. People go to temples and pay homage to Buddha. They give donations and pouring scented water over the temple figurines to cleanse them.

For my songkran, I stopped at Wat Pho. As I did before, I played myself as a Thai and walked in without bothering with the ticket counter. (And, again, I made up for this by donating generously to the temple.) I joined people in line washing a row of Buddhas. I dropped coins in a line of copper vases behind the Reclining Buddha. I sat meditating in the coronation room, observing Buddhists as they came to pay their respects.

But there’s no shelter from the water, even at a temple. A monk sitting in an elevated chair flung water onto bowing visitors. There was also a mini-parade where kids danced and sprayed water on the spectators. The star douser, though, was a baby elephant that followed the kids around. It used its trunk to spray visitors. Forget a pony, if a birthday kid’s smart he’ll ask for a baby elephant.

In all, I got what I wanted. A peaceful, soulful afternoon at one of my favorite temples.

The Royal

On a lark, I went to Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace to see the Emerald Buddha. I couldn’t pull the stunt I’d wanted to with the tickets because military men had closed the main entrance. That’s when I remembered that the Emerald Buddha changes outfits during songkran—the guards were probably there because a royal was there to change the garb.

I walked around looking for another entrance and eventually found my way in on the east side. I found loads of people, farang and Thai, kneeling at the bottom of the steps leading up to the Emerald Buddha’s temple. It was packed and a guard was kicking out anyone not sitting. Most of the people seated were hiding under umbrellas. I did not have one. I also did not know how long I’d have to wait. It was way too hot and bright, so instead of trying to find a spot, I bailed out.

I walked around to the main entrance, on my way to catch a boat back to the BTS station. That’s when I saw a bunch of guards blocking off the road. I got whiff that the prince would be exiting shortly, presumably after finishing his royal duties with the Emerald Buddha.

Slowly, more police and guards showed up, blocking traffic in all directions. Then they started telling people to take off their hats and to turn off their cameras. Usually I’d put up a fight, but they had guns and I’m less bulletproof than I’d prefer. It was the quietest I’ve ever heard a main Bangkok street.

Then, trumpets sounded (really) and a black BMW rolled out. It was followed by a Rolls Royce with three people in white uniforms crammed into the back. Then red BMW after red BMW poured out of the complex and sped after the two lead cars. I kept waiting for a stately car to slowly roll past, but it never came. Guess one of the people in the back of the Rolls was a prince.

I wonder if they made him sit bitch.

The Food

I headed back to grab food at MBK food court. I felt like some rice, so I ordered shrimp fried rice. It reminded me of a friend who only orders shrimp fried rice every time we eat Thai. It’s boring, I know, but it’s what I was in the mood for.

I chased that with a Thai iced tea then topped it off with red beans and sticky rice with coconut milk. Unless it’s a meal from Becca’s mom or one with friends, I can’t imagine a meal that better exemplifies this trip. Cheap, yummy, and at a food court.

I will miss you food court. I will miss your strange no cash only coupon/card system. I will miss the ladies that treat me like I’m their disappointing son when I ask to change my coupon/card to cash. I will miss your tasty, cheap, delightful eats. Food court, don’t tell anyone, but Del Taco ain’t got nothin’ on you.

The Politics

On the BTS today, I overheard an older Aussie talking to an older American. The American asked if Siam Paragon shopping center was open because he wanted to see a movie. The Aussie said that it was closed because the Reds had consolidated their protest sites to Ratchaprasong, which is near Paragon. He added that he wouldn’t go anywhere near there because the Reds had automatic weapons and grenades and that there were snipers all around (he didn’t specify which side). The American asked if MBK was open. The Aussie said he wouldn’t go there either and directed the American to Emporium, which is a bit further away. “Gosh,” said the American. “I’m glad I ran into you.”

Really? There are a lot of good reasons not to go near the protest site, but snipers and automatic weapons are probably the dumbest. Seriously. Let’s break it down.

First, and most important, the American was not going NEAR the protest site. He asked about MBK for his movie, which is about a kilometer away from Ratchaprasong. There are some powerful sniper rifles, but I don’t know any that can shoot half a mile through multiple buildings, at least not any earthling rifles. So, the idea that MBK was somehow dangerous was lame.

Second, if there were ever a time that the Reds and the government wouldn’t be fighting, it would be now. The Reds are massed in a place where the government would have to literally wage urban war to extract them. The Ratchaprasong intersection is surrounded by large buildings and a maze of streets and alleys. The army would have to drive the Reds out then hold the area. All without damaging the shopping centers, offices, and tourist hotels that front the streets and without harming the kids and grandparents camped out in the streets or the tourists staying at the hotels. The army may be many things, but it’s not that stupid.

The Reds, meanwhile, would not be so foolish as to give up the moral high ground. They’re sympathetic as victims of either of an overzealous government or of some third party terrorist plot. Either way, mounting an offensive is not their goal. They just scored a victory with the election commission, so they have a political advantage. They hold a complex, naturally fortified part of the city, so they hold the tactical advantage. They also have the public relations advantage. For today, at least, they have no reason to go on the offensive. They’re not going anywhere until the government (or the terrorists) moves against their position, they run out of money, or the situation otherwise forces them to.

This isn’t all conjecture (just mostly). A week ago the government issued arrest warrants for about 13 Red leaders. Those leaders have been parading around Ratchaprasong, giving speeches, organizing Reds, and giving concert performances–it’s not as if the government doesn’t know where they are. In the whole time, the government has not even tried to get at the leaders at the protest site; it’d just be too complicated. I believe the Reds are confident they can hold the intersection indefinitely and don’t feel the need to go anywhere else.

Not even any would-be-terrorists would be dumb enough to try something. That’s because it’s so clear that the government and the Reds are in no position or mood to battle. If they tried something, both sides would throw their hands up and say, “See, it’s some evil person who wants to sabotage our negotiations because we wouldn’t be so stupid to try anything.” It would probably even unite the government and the Reds for at least short time.

Of course, I’m an ignorant bastard who’s just making this up (mostly) as he goes along. Watch. “The government will try to expel the Reds from Ratchaprasong just as the Reds mount a guerilla war.”  Just because.

The bottom line is, though, the old white guys weren’t going to scare me from saying goodbye to my old protest pals.

When I got there, it was almost the same as before, except with three times as many people. It did seem like there were more cameras–the cam on the boom seemed especially active.

I walked through the crowd and noticed one key difference. There were now vendors showing and selling videos of Saturday’s violence. Some video was from camera phones, some from professional video cameras, some from TV news. Every vendor selling the videos had a crowd gathered around, watching the footage on monitors or TVs. To my eye, it looked like some video showed soldiers shooting into the crowd, whether rubber or real bullets or whether in response to being fired upon, I couldn’t say. No matter what, the fact that people believed the government might have killed their comrades had a sobering effect on the watchers. Sure, the massage ladies were still doing good business, so the street fair wasn’t off. The tone of the crowd, though, was a bit more serious.

On a billboard advertising a beauty product, someone had posted graphic pictures of the dead protesters and a picture of the Prime Minister with blood coming out of his forehead and a Hitler mustache. Above the picture of the PM, someone had scrawled, “I’m To Kill You Attack Sudden.” Next to the text was a peace sign. I couldn’t tell whether it had been written by one person or two. The image seemed to be the perfect synopsis of the whole screwy situation.

Right then my camera battery died and I headed towards home.

Massage

If I couldn’t leave Bangkok without seeing the Reds, I sure couldn’t leave without a massage. On the way back I stopped at one of my favorites, Buanthip Massage.

I ended up with an older lady who absolutely destroyed me. I asked her to focus on my upper back and shoulders and she spent 30 minutes using her whole body weight to jam her elbow into various parts of my trapezius. It’s the only time I’ve actually had to tell a masseuse to stop while I tried to recover my breath. She laughed at me.

When I left, I felt like the Double Dragon twins had taken a lead pipe to my upper shoulders. It was great.

I headed back to Suk 11 to pack for my trip to Siem Riep, Cambodia. It’s been almost a month and a half since I arrived in Thailand. I’m sad to see it go. I’ve managed a manic, fitting good bye. The only thing that could have made it better is if I could have said good bye to all the people that made it special. Alas, the road calls and, because of my visa, I must answer.

Till Cambodia.

———————–

Day 43 in pictures.

*Turns out I’m not totally insane. There’s research indicating that jogging is bad for you and that short intense exercise is better for your body. See this podcast, starting 35:21.

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