Thursday, April 16, 2015

Am I really in Bangkok?

A small part of Bangkok, seen from my hotel room
Of course I am (or was)—but it still is so otherworldly, despite all the travel, despite how our universe has shrunk, despite the fact that I have been in Thailand for the better part of two weeks and this was actually my port of entry.
Long tail boats on the Chao Phraya
Bangkok. For somebody born in 1956, this is still as far away as it gets. To be precise, 12 time zones from home. And now I am here, sitting in the open-air, roof-top lounge (31st floor) of the Hilton Millenium Bangkok, sipping free wine and watching how the bustling city sinks into smog and darkness, with lights springing up everywhere. (Just for the record: I started writing this update on Tuesday afternoon but completed it on my flight from BKK to Tokyo on Wednesday.)
The Royal Couple and the hot Princess are ubiquitous
When I arrived this morning at Don Mueang airport (Bangkok's other international airport, also known by its DMK code—I will fly out of Suvanabhumi tomorrow, or BKK) and, having collected my luggage, got into a taxi, I wasn't so sure whether this was going to be a love affair. Mind you, I went to the official airport taxi stand, and the driver needed to make a few phone calls to figure out where the hotel was. On the way, what I saw brought up images from The Wind-Up Girl, a book that Stu recommended and that I started to read while at Mae Klang. The book paints a picture of a dystopian Bangkok after what is simply called the incident, and I thought I had entered the plot. Smog, too many cars, high-rise apartment blocks that looked plain inhabitable, and nothing green within sight. I thought I was visiting Gotham.
What a view!
Somehow the taxi driver and I (no kidding!) managed to find the Hilton, where in exchange for a few points and a measly $50 I was set up with a stellar room on the 27th floor, overlooking said Gotham. Actually, from up here it didn't look all that bad! I have to admit that it is easy to be a snob when the check-in is in a private area, with cold towels and lavender/honey tea. It was difficult to not make an immodest move when my personal concierge showed me my room and the amenities. The room's amenities, that is. Whew! 
A little offering keeps accidents away ...

... and a bit of color never hurts, either
One of the many benis here at the Hilton is a free river boat shuttle to the opposite bank of the Chao Phraya river, to the Taksin pier. After checking in and taking good note of the operating hours of the Executive Lounge, I took the shuttle to explore a tiny part of this huge metropolis. What's better than to invest a few dollars for an all-day river boat ticket?
The tugs have these massive hooks to pull the barges

Bangkok is built on water. Just looking at the map makes clear that this is the Venice of the east. I haven't checked good ol' Google, but I am sure there is some-such moniker for Bangkok. The Chao Phraya is a scarily busy waterway, with boats of all sizes crissing and a-crossing at insane speeds. I was especially fascinated by the  "long tail" boats that are powered by what must be old Chevy engines that look as if they produce at least 575 hp. The guys who operate them work the throttle and the long propeller shaft—directly attached to the open-air engine—with much muscle and obvious dexterity. The speed that these long skiffs achieve is phenomenal! Next time I'm here I'll rent one of them for a day and explore all those canals that branch off from the main river.
Choice river real estate
And then there are the temples
During daylight hours the slow, meandering river (I know that it is a calm waterway because I saw it late at night when the boat traffic had ceased) is a churning cauldron of waves. All those boats—long tails, small ferries that look like temples, large tourist boats, tugs towing huge barges, totally overloaded large ferries—appear in constant danger of collision and disaster. There is an incessant jostling for docking slots at the ubiquitous piers. The boat attendants will bark out some vocal command for the captain to bring her to, and as soon as (dis)embarkation is complete (a matter of seconds, not minutes) a shrill whistle will indicate that once again we're on our way. Oh, I had so much fun!
Seriously overcrowded ferry
I got off the boat at the pier that is close to the Flower Market to take a little stroll. Since this is Sonkran, the market was essentially dead, with only a few of the wholesalers receiving truck-loads of chrysanthemum buds and roses that needed to be stored. Actually, it is rather fascinating to walk through such an area when it is not bustling with activity. A few shopkeepers were sitting around, but overall it was quiet and peaceful. Even the stray cats seemed to enjoy the afternoon, sunning themselves while a few kids were brandishing small water guns. No, this was not Chiang Mai—this was Bangkok at its calmest. Here are a few pics from my short walk:

I got back on a boat and continued my journey upstream. The architecture varies from the gilded wats via the ramshackle riverside slum dwelling on stilts to the ultra-modern condo highrise. Wherever you look, there is another photo opportunity. I stayed on the front deck for most of the way, trying to take it all in.
Speeding long tail boat
The engines are impressive, to say the least
I made it back to the Hilton with enough time to cool off in the scenic 4th-floor pool before it was Happy Hour in the lounge. OMG, that one was hard to beat! With an outdoor 31st-floor view of the river and the northern part of Bangkok—setting sun toward the west, glowing fiery red thanks to the ever-present smog—it was easy to while away almost two hours. The complimentary food and the oh-so-lovely young women filling up my glass didn't hurt, either. Those are the moments when I decide that I just have to requalify for HH Diamond status at least one more year....
The Hilton's pool ain't too shabby

At night, the Hilton's boat runs a shuttle to the Asiatique Riverfront market area. Well, it was a bit disappointing right by the pier—totally touristy with KFC, Burger King, and Starbucks as anchors. But a few blocks away from the water, there it was once again, the Thailand throbbing with Sonkran fever, with crazy yet non-aggressive traffic, with the satay stands and all those smiling faces. I drifted around for a while, taking in those last few impressions of a country that has been quite an experience. Undoubtedly, I will be back.
Sunset over smoggy Bangkok
Three minutes later the sun was essentially invisible because of the smog

A final beer—yes, an Erdinger!!!—on the rooftop
As always, thanks for reading.


Monday, April 13, 2015

Sonkran, or the largest wet t-shirt contest in the world

Sonkran crowd at Chiang Mai's Tha Phae Gate
I should have seen the ambush ahead of time and taken evasive action, but then it was already too late. They hit me full-on, right in the face and the entire chest. And they let out a devilish scream of laughter. What else could I do but laugh as well?

Welcome to Sonkran.

This is the time of year when it is the hottest, but rain relief is just around the corner. It's also the beginning of the lunar New Year, and so the Thais celebrate for three days. Since this year's Sonkran falls on a Monday through Wednesday, the madness started on Sunday. Coming to think of it, I saw the first buckets of water and water machine guns on Saturday afternoon.
Sonkran is all about soaking others as well as getting soaked. Stu had told me well ahead of time that I simply couldn't miss this festival of water, and now that I'm in the middle of it I totally agree. On my Sunday morning ride north along the river Ping I had sensed a feeling of excitement, especially among the children. I saw them sitting by the side of the road, playing with their water guns and filling buckets and large jars from hoses that their parents had extended to the curb. Adults also behaved differently in that there was less business and busyness than usual. Streets were being swept, flags were placed along the road, and more than one guy sat with a beer in hand waiting for things to happen.
"Riding shotgun" takes on a different meaning
The first ambushes happened on the way back into town, and by the time I reached the shop I was totally wet—not from sweat but buckets of water. After checking in with Stu and Mong I went back to the apartment to change out of my riding gear and into baggies and a light shirt. By the time I made it back to the shop I was totally wet again—Sonkran by now had started in earnest. On the ring road around the old town square, traffic was completely gridlocked. Pick-up trucks carried 50-gallon drums with water in the back, and shrieking adults and children were busy filling buckets and whatever other receptacles there were and then dumping them into and onto the car, tuk-tuk, bicycle, or pedestrian that happened to be within reach. Mayhem, plain and simple.
Even the little monks-in-training were having devilish fun
A few of those scoundrels use ice water for added effect. The first time I took one of those buckets I really gasped! The water guns are serious business, and they're being sold everywhere, together with plastic buckets, trashcans (to hold more water), and waterproof neck pouches so that one's money doesn't get soaked.
Free ammo
While starting to chronicle all of this on Sunday afternoon, a big thunderstorm opened the floodgates over Chiang Mai, soaking everyone. I doubt that this will—excuse the pun—damp anyone's enthusiasm. Sonkran hasn't even started yet, and everyone is grinning ear to ear.
Sunday's downpour simply added water
This was Sunday. On Monday, the first official day of Sonkran, the city became a madhouse. It is not possible to get any wetter by jumping into a pool than by simply getting out into the streets. I had carefully sealed by wallet and camera in Ziploc bags before venturing out, and the inside of the bags was the only dry spot anywhere near me. Taking photos was quite difficult—I had to watch my back (lest a bucket of water be dumped over my head) and keep an eye out for streams of water coming from water guns, hoses, buckets, and ladles while quickly unzipping the bag, taking the camera out, and taking the shot, and then resealing it again. Next time I go to Sonkran I will make sure I have a waterproof camera!
Go-go dancers from the rear ...
... and the front
The streets were totally clogged with people and vehicles. Water was standing in the streets. Hoses continued to fill those big drums that people had placed on the sidewalks; those in trucks used buckets to scoop water out of the moat to refill the trashcans, kiddie pools, or barrels that they had in the bed. Vendors sold huge blocks of ice to chill the water. Street battles erupted between slowly passing vehicles and those on the sidewalk. Marauding "fighters," armed with water bazookas and extra plastic water tanks slung to their backs, moved through the crowd, spraying anybody in sight. Plastic goggles kept their eyes dry. Five-gallon buckets of water were dumped into rickshaws and tuk-tuks—nothing was sacred.
Everybody was smiling and screaming with laughter. I have never seen anything like this before, ever. It is my understanding that the now-popular (for-profit) color runs in the US are based on Sonkran, but it is hard to imagine that people could have as much fun as this! The craziness lasted all day, and I drifted around the city for much of it. At one point I took a respite and went for the double-whammy two-hour massage (first Thai, then oil). Then it was back into the crowd, smiling even more than before. Life is good.
Nothing like wet Lady Boys!
Not only is this a festival of water, but it also is an occasion to dance and eat and drink. Stages with dancers (high-energy disco stuff) with huge sound systems were set up in various places, and the crowd simply gyrated along. Vendors were hawking the usual Thai delicacies that one can buy for a quarter or so, and the bars along the ring road around the old town were totally packed with  revelers. I can't believe how many farang there are in Chiang Mai, and how many of them are good-looking babes! Ah, to be young again!
Lovely farang street fighter
Stu, Mong, his German friend Andy (who had arrived from China in the afternoon), and I closed down the afternoon and evening with water-dousing, a nice meal, and Belgian beers in a rooftop bar in the old town. And even up there, the water games continued!
I'm putting the finishing touches on this update while sitting in the Chiang Mai airport, waiting for my Nok Air flight to Bangkok. I am sure things will be crazy there as well. Two more days of Sonkran are still ahead of us. I hope the country doesn't run out of water!
Confiscated water guns at the CNX security check-point
A short PS after my arrival in Bangkok:  I counted at least a dozen checked-baggage water guns on our luggage belt! Oh my!


Sunday, April 12, 2015

Three days and 183 miles on a loaner in Siam

The borrowed Marin turned out to be a faithful companion
The title sounds more promising than what it really was: Just another bike tour in another second-and-a-half to third-world country. But boy, did I ever enjoy it!

I won't even pretend to have any idea about how this place works, after just a week of having been in the country. But I do believe that I have learned how to flow with traffic and blend in. The rest is just common sense, unless you want to start a business.
Lots of top-heavy vehicles to contend with ...
I left the apartment in Chiang Mai on Wednesday morning with a map, a set of borrowed panniers, and a change of clothes—on top of the loaner bike. I had a vague idea that I wanted to head south toward maybe the Mae Wang valley on the first night, but that's about as far as plans went.
Rice paddy close to the Mae Wang valley
Never one to settle for 40 miles if there's a way to ride 50, I started to take detours early. Honestly, it was much more the getting-away-from traffic thing than hogging miles. As a result, I took a rather circuitous route that led me through tiny villages, on back roads, along rivers and canals. For the next three days I tried to stay away from the larger roads as much as possible, ans as a result I ended up with a good idea of how the common Thais live in  this part of the world.
Directional challenges
Food and water were never an issue. It seems as if everybody is intent on selling something edible. Many of the modest houses along the road will have a table set up with a few bottles containing colored drinks and some wrapped snacks or fruit. Small eateries, where a soup or a pad Thai is going to be prepared within minutes for about one dollar, are ubiquitous. There's always a stainless steel water cooler set up, and there are crystal cubes in an ice chest—self service and no cost. The water is filtered, and I have not gotten sick despite drinking water everywhere. The food is simply delicious, and my breakfast consisted of stopping after the first 20 miles or so and pointing at some of the ingredients and then watching a delicious meal spring to life.
A typical tiny eatery by the roadside
For a while I rode along the Ping river, which slowly meanders south from Chiang Mai. There are occasional water buffalo, and in a few spots fish farms are set up with floating enclosures in which reddish fish gasp for air. Some of these "farms" have set up small wheels that aerate the water so the fish don't die before they go to market.
Fish-farms on the River Ping
The roads are in amazingly good shape; actually, they are better than excellent. Outside of Germany and Switzerland, I do not think that I have ever seen smoother, better paved roads than here. No potholes, ample shoulders (unless it was a tiny road which didn't have a shoulder but was just as well paved), essentially no rough patches—simply amazing. I do have to admit to riding only in the flat areas of Thailand; when the road started to go upward in the Mae Wang Valley or later at Inthanon National Park, I almost immediately threw the towel because I did not want to climb 40 kilometers straight up (the roads don't seem to follow the contours of the land but simply go up and over hills and mountains) in 95-degree heat. There are better ways to kill oneself.
Eat too much, and that's what you will look like!
Traffic is mostly light, unless one is on the main artery leading from Chiang Mai to the south. Every car and motorcycle gives a bike enough room, and I was not honked at a single time—actually, I have heard only a half a dozen honks during my entire time in Thailand so far. Drivers are totally non-aggressive. I have never felt safer and more in tune with the general traffic flow in any other country, even when riding in CM after dark, without lights.
21st-century monk in texting position—really!
Traveling by bike allowed me to stop whenever I wanted to take a photo. There are so many things to see! Probably the most stunning sights are presented by all those temples that dot the countryside. Actually, they are monasteries with temples inside of them. They follow rather strict building patterns, it seems, with a walled (and gated) compound holding various buildings that one would call temples and belfries. The Thai word for such a compound is wat. Saffron-robed monks live and work here. Mong told me that the wats have always been closely linked to villages and schools, not much different from traditional Christian churches. The finely decorated wats present an amazing sight, with golden pagodas, steep, red-tiled roofs, and serpents, dragons, and Buddha figures everywhere. It is perfectly OK to enter the main building, always finely adorned and a place of calm and peace, just like the rest of the compound. There are large bells and gongs, and I also saw some large drums; small wind chimes tinkle whenever there is a breeze. If it weren't for vicious temple dogs (not in the city, but out in the country) that are the only aggressive living things I have seen here, those wats would be ideal in all their beauty and peacefulness. ( BTW, I saw way more than three wats.)
Wat #1
Wat #2 guarded by menacing bitch
Wat #3
I was out for three days, so that meant that I had to find accommodations twice. The first night, in the Mae Wang Valley, I stayed in an eco lodge right next to an elephant camp. The Chai Lai lodge is run by an American woman, but just as is the case for Stu and his bike shop adventure she continually has to watch her step with the authorities and make sure that she doesn't violate this or that regulation. The lodge is in area of the valley that apparently sees gazillions of Thai tourists, judging from the number of eateries lining the curvy road in this tight section of the valley. Savvy vendors rent out bamboo rafts, and kids and adults float down the river or simply sit on a small bamboo platform by the water to eat and drink. It's quite a sight. However, all of those folks disappear in the evening, and the lodge had only farang guests. I spent 1,300 baht (or about $40) for a spacious non-air conditioned room, with a clean king sized bed and a mosquito net. Windows on two sides of the room and a fan were all that was needed to stay comfortable. That evening, about ten of us sat around until midnight drinking wine and inhaling whatever was passed around, talking about travel and the world. For me, it was a nice throw-back to all those years spent on long bike tours.
Mae Wang river valley with end-of-the line rafts, waiting to be disassembled
The elephant camp
The Chai Lai eco lodge on the right bank
I woke up to the trumpeting of an elephant from the adjacent camp. Elephants here are more of a tourist attraction than viable logging tools, but at least something is being done to keep these animals from extinction. Tourists (many of them Chinese or Malaysian) come up to take a ride with the pachyderms or even go into the river and get hosed down by the giants. Regardless, that sound is a pretty special thing, especially when it rips through gentle morning jungle sounds created by birds and frogs.
Bananas in the making
My second night was spent at the entrance of Doi Inthanon National Park. When I arrived there around 2 p.m., it was so stinking hot that I thought I'd probably die trying to put in another 35 all-uphill kilometers to see ... yes, to see what, exactly? The haziness that's been engulfing the area for weeks, if not months, takes away any kind of scenic long-distance views. The pollution caused by locals car traffic, burning trash, clearing land from forest, and general use of wood fires is horrendous. I would guess that more than half the cyclists and motorcycle riders wear some sort of bandana or face mask to fend off the ever-present smog. So, I couldn't see any sense to push on, even though I had ridden only about 45 miles. Instead I hiked up to the close-by Mae Klang waterfall (a bit on the dry side, but still a nice sight; in the rainy season this baby roars!) and then found myself a small guesthouse a few hundred yards downriver. Again, this was a touristy spot (yet quite deserted on this Thursday afternoon) with numerous eateries that make their money by placing small bamboo platform right by the river and serving up hot chicken and cold beer. I whiled away the afternoon, cooling off in the river and sipping beers. Man, it felt like paradise! For the first time in days I really cooled down! The local beer is crappy enough that one can pour it into a glass filled with ice and not notice the difference—the cold factor is well worth the dilution!
Panoramic shot of the Mae Klang waterfall
Leo, a bucket of ice, and a whole chicken—what more can one ask for?
Bamboo pads are set up along the water for customers to eat and drink
Really, the only thing missing was a massage, but the AC in my little room (500 baht, or about $15) was almost making up for that. The neighborhood totally died around 6 p.m., and I soon retreated to my room to watch Thai commercials on TV (why do these people never look as if they belong into the country whose language they speak?). I even got a chance to Skype with Sabine. When I switched everything off I could hear the river gurgling outside.
Great little gas station—just don't blow up the house!
I'm not sure whether anybody has ever used this exercise equipment in this "park"
Neon bottles are a universal sign for "Caution! Stay Back!"
On day three, I rolled back toward Chiang Mai. Once again, I went the circuitous way, trying to look at everything I encountered. The list is so limited, thanks to a brain weakened by Chang and Leo beers. Or maybe not. The "gas station" that consists of three 50-gallon drums and three hand-operated pumps, inside of what looks like somebody's house. The spread-eagled chicken, flat as a pancake, on the charcoal fire; the ice-cream vendor on his motorized tricycle, with the big umbrella threatening to blow off any second; the loudspeakers in the villages that suddenly spring into action with a baritone voice exclaiming, well, something; the chilies drying in pans on the rooftops; the shrine monger; the bamboo monger ("We carry your size of bamboo stick!"); the everything-under-the-sun monger; the surplus electrical wires that seem to be a requisite to be admitted into the coveted circle of third-world countries; the monks walking by in search of alms or simply texting; the schoolgirls in their uniforms; the totally overloaded truck precariously starting to lean into that turn; the papayas and mangoes on trees within a few yards of the entry door of somebody's home; the unintelligible road signs; the smell of pungent, decaying, lovely, inviting things; the occasional smile of a passing scooter or bike rider when you catch his or even her eye.
Let's use a small shrine to protect the large one
Isn't this a pretty sight?
Elephants are everywhere!
Words don't do it justice, and my pictures don't either. You need to experience all this yourself. I can set you up with a rental bike. For my part, I know that I will be back for a much longer tour that will encompass some of the surrounding countries as well. One-hundred and eighty-three miles just isn't enough.
Like a woman, they give me so much joy, and so much pain!
Until the next update,