Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Wednesday, May 18, 2011 (Bangkok, Thailand)

If ther's one place to see in Bangkok, someone told me, get to the Grand Palace (pictured above). OK, I thought, I'll go to the palace first then go to the Jim Thompson House. I plotted my course: Walk 10 or 15 minutes to the Sala Daeng Sky Train station, take the train toward the Wongwian Yai terminus, get off at the Saphin Taksin station, catch a river taxi at Tha Sathon or Tha Oriental; get off at Tha Tien or Tha Chang and walk over to Wat Phra Kaew (Emerald Buddha) and Grand Palace. Really. How hard could that be for someone who has been living in Southeast Asia since early February?

Getting off on the wrong foot: Someone suggested I take a taxi on the first leg of this trip instead of walking to the Sky Train station. That's when the trouble began.
For one thing, the taxi driver took me to the WRONG STATION (Si Lom), which was on an entirely different train line. That cost 100 baht (about $3.50 US). He left me quickly. I stared for a while--with dim wits--at a sign while squeezing the life out of my street map. As if on cue, a gentleman stepped forward when he noticed my haplessness. He said--in quite good English--he had a better idea than taking the Sky Train to the river from the wrong station. As he squiggled excitedly in red ink on my wrinkled map, he also MIGHT have said the Grand Palace isn't all that great, anyway, so don't worry about getting there right away. Some mysterious orchestration had begun. The SYNDICATE had moved in. I was about to be played, like a concertina--whatever that is.
My new pal said the best way to get to the river taxi would be by a tuk-tuk, waving his hand toward one of Bangkok's distinctive three-wheeled "taxis" (see public-domain photo at right of tuk-tuk whizzing past the palace, where I wanted to go). He crossed the street with me and introduced me to the driver. I had heard of these vehicles, vaguely, and I think I rode one once at an amusement park in Ohio.
The Crash Test Dummy Climbs Into the Back Seat: I stared at the car and counted the safety features--on one hand, one finger, actually. I got in. I mean, how hard could it be to catch a river taxi and zip up to the Grand Palace?
The driver's name was Lob. His English--while vastly superior to my Thai--was absolutely, utterly, incredibly horrible. He did laugh a lot. Squealed in delight, really. He took me to the river, all right. But it was to a wharf that had NO river taxis. Instead it had a boat that could take me to some canal network. The Wharf Master tried to talk me into getting onto a boat that could take me to some tourist attractions with names I could not pronounce somewhere along some canal near the river. I thought of Burma. I said I simply wanted to get to the Grand Palace and really wanted to catch a water taxi there. The man at that wharf gave up on this particular hustle and told me the nearest river-taxi stop was a bit up the river. He pointed to a wharf with a blue roof only about 150 yards up river. I started backtracking so I could walk to it, limping slightly thanks to the reawakened plantar fasciitis.
Caveat Emptor: Lob, who thought he had done his job and delivered me on a silver platter to some emporium on some canal, was clearly startled when he spotted me out of the corner of his tuk-tuk.
He saluted me--"Yo! Mr. Frank!"--and said he could take me to the Grand Palace himself for 40 baht. There was just one catch. (Those of you who have been to Bangkok know what it was, of course.) He had to make a "stop for gas"--maybe two, he told me. Fine, I thought, although the gas tank couldn't possibly be big enough for two fillings. But I don't want to walk. I thought I would just sit in the back of the tuk-tuk for however long it took and inhale what's left of his exhaust fumes.
It turns out he wasn't entirely honest about the "stopping for gas" part of it. Or, rather, I'd say he was lawyerly honest about it. It turns out he really wanted to bring me to a men's clothing store--Tom's International Collection. (I had not heard of this place.) If he steered me there, I learned, he would receive a VOUCHER for free Esso gas. So, yes, he was technically "stopping for gas."
By then I knew I was either in a slasher flick, in a scene from Bourne Identity VIII or in some international commercial swirl that was out of my control. I decided I was just going to have to close my eyes, lie back and think of England, as they say.
On my merry way to the Grand Palace, of course.
A few illegal lane crossings later, I found myself strolling into the aforementioned Tom's International Collection. Just like the tuk-tuk, I was fuming. But I remembered to simply think of England. So I played nice. There were bolts of cloth there. They must make something. I decided I would buy something. Thanks to some help from a smooth-as-silk salesman/tailor named Alex (right) I walked, nay, strutted out of there poorer by 10,000 bahts (about $360 US) and clutching the promise that six tailored shirts and two tailored pants would be delivered to my hotel by 7 that night. Sure they will. And they'll be delivered by elephant..... Granted, I still wasn't at the palace, but at least I could dress for a palace visit if I ever had one.

Without a guide; without a clue: Next, Lob, who was beginning to really feel it, whisked me to a jewelry store. There, in a walking coma, I plunked down a crisp 100 baht note (about $36) for jade earrings for a neice who has never to my knowledge ever said anything about liking Jade. My driver picked me up when I emerged. As he tuk-tukked his way into snarling traffic I found myself tapping out the rhythms of Van McCoy's great "The Hustle" the the cadence of the tuk-tuk. I was certainly being played. I kept thinking of England.
Then things got worse.
As we chuttered through Bangkok, and speaking loudly over the tapping of the cylinder(s), announced loudly that he had to get home to "FEED MY BABY"--whatever that means. I nodded dumbly and yelled, "That's OK, so long as your baby is in the Grand Palace." He did not get my little joke. That was OK because I really wasn't joking.
He pulled over and waved to a fellow conspirator, er, fellow tuk-tuk driver. He explained the situation. Lob waved me good-bye, took NO MONEY from me and assured me that his friend would drive me to the Grand Palace for the same 40 bahts that Lob has been promised.
Again, I just closed my eyes and thought of England.

Can Somebody Help Me Find a Word that Rhymes with Tuk-Tuk? I snapped one picture from the back of the tuk-tuk, and have included it at right. As you can see there's an air bag. Oh, no. I'm WRONG. There's NO AIR BAG. It's just plenty of AIR with NO BAG at all.
My new driver, whom I will call A.J. for an obvious reason, took about fourteen turns (probably at the same three or four intersections for all I knew) and I was feeling confident. "How far to the palace?" I asked cheerily (thinking how friggin' big can this city be?). He muttered. My English wasn't working.

The accident: A.J. stopped at a T-intersection. Then he edged boldly into traffic in the tuk-tuk's classic staggered bursts of speed. He looked in one direction, did NOT look the other way, and forged ahead. I saw it. He didn't.
I yelled "Look out" in totally useless English. He rammed right into the back of a motorcycle, which had stopped suddenly (IN THE MIDDLE OF AN INTERSECTION). (The aftermath of the collision is shown at right.)
There I was, sitting in the back of a very thin-skinned tuk-tuk in the middle of a busy intersection soemwhere in the bowels of Bangkok, surrounded by random pieces of a motorcycle fender, with the smell of gasoline drifting my way. I thought, again, of England.
I just wanted to get a ride to the Grand Palace. Is this too much to ask? Evidently.
I waited for the motorcyclist to haul off and utterly box A.J. in his ear. Didn't happen. The motorcyclist was still picking up pieces when A.J. did a hurried bow, with palms dutifully pressed together at chest level, and scrambled to his tuk-tuk, waving to me to get in. I don't think EITHER driver wanted to talk with ANY police officer about ANYTHING. The tuk-tuk had a pretty good dent, but it could move. He eventually brought me to the east wall of the palace grounds. He had the utter gall to ask me if I wanted him to wait so he could drive me back to the hotel. THAT's when i STOPPED THINKING OF ENGLAND and stiffened by back, snapped my head up, and said, bravely, "No."
I did tour the palace (see below). Then, I grabbed a metered cab for the ride back to the hotel (after actually getting OUT of the cab when another driver wanted to charge me 400 bahts for the trip). I didn't pass Go. I didn't go to the Jim Thompson House.
When I got safely back to the hotel, I enjoyed a cup of green tea (right) and then went up to the room and assumed the fetal position.

AT THE GRAND PALACE (FINALLY): As mentioned, I did make it to the Grand Palace and the contiguous temple. The temple (The Temple of the Emerald Buddha) is really the great attraction, not so much the palace, which has very limited access. At least I got a chance to see yet another changing of the guard (above).
The temple area has plenty of sights, even ones that a Buddhist monk might want to record on film (right). The temple is also known as Wat Phra Kaew. The complex features eye-catching buildings relating to both the ruling family and Buddhism. The centerpiece is the so-called "Emerald Buddha", which is really made of jade. it is north of the royal residence and is one of the holiest sites in Thailand. The Buddha sits on a gilded Thai-style throne. It was discovered in 1434 in a stupa in Chiang Rai. That statue is what the monk in my photograph is focusing on. And the complex has a small replica of Angkor Wat, for those who can't get over to Cambodia.
I enjoyed coming across an artist who was working in the galleries of the Royal Monastery (right). The artwork on the wall presents scenes from the Ramakien, the national epic of Thailand.
Back to the palace.... One building, the Borom Phiman Mansion, was built in 1903 by King Rama V for the heir apparent (No. VI). It clearly reflects the European influence on the king. So does the larger building of the palace area, which is the actual Grand Palace.
It's shown at the top of today's entry and features a distinctive Thai-style roofline, atop a very European body. King Rama V (right) visited Europe for the first time in 1897, the first Siamese king to do so. He's the one about whom my great aunt wrote an intriguing (but unexplained) item in a diary she kept as a 17-year-old in 1904. She was in Paris at the time, and her efforts to buy a hat had been thwarted because the Duchess of Marlborough had swept in and bought it before her. She wrote that the incident reminded her of "Lucy [her sister], the King of Siam and the studs in Geneva."
That's all I know. Think those studs might still be in the palace somewhere?

THE TAILOR COMES THROUGH: Just want to let you know that Tom's International Collection did as they promised. The shirts and pants were delivered to the hotel by 7 p.m. Sandy and I have looked at them. Some stitching may be a bit too obvious and I don't dare try any of them on just at this moment, but the clothing got here as promised. For that I am relieved. Maybe the tuk-tuk adventure was worth the hassle after all.

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