Photos for this section are online at this link
After celebrating Loi Krathong at its point of origin at the ancient capitol Sukhothai, it was off to Bangkok for my birthday on the 15th and the official Loi Krathong day on the 16th. One note about the ancient capitol is it has no river running through it. The new city does have a major river going through the heart of town. Kind of odd that the festival is all about water now, when it was all about lights in the sky 600 years ago.
Sunday, November 13
Better than planned, as far as transport goes. Left the hotel at 7 am, got a song-taew to where the Pitsanuloke bus was waiting (it left as soon as I was aboard) and then a tuk-tuk to the train station by 8:45. Caught the 9 am rapid train to Bangkok - the only problem was second class was full, so I had to go third class. Not too bad, though, the Bangkok car was very comfortable, padded seats (the short-haul 3rd class seats are wooden or hard plastic). Even third class seats are reserved - I don't think they were in '89, I know they weren't in the 70's.
I took lots of photos along the way to show the changes of scenery and the people inside the train and at the stations (those are in the previous set starting here - photos 276-367) . There was a lot of food being sold. Sellers would get on board at one town, and get off a few stops later, presumably to come back on the northbound trains. As we got closer to Bangkok, a couple of the sellers stayed on board, but changed what they were selling when we got to a new city. Iced coffee and iced tea in a plastic bag with a straw poked through the top. Canned soft drinks and beer. Styrofoam packages with rice and a topping - curried pork, chicken or beef. Fruit on a stick. The one food which surprised me was corn on the cob, it looked like it was pretty popular. Not so popular were fried insects - crickets, beetles, grubs. I saw those in the Sukhothai market as well.
We arrived at the Bangkok city limits at 2:30 pm, but it took another hour to get to the main station. Lots of delays for surface traffic, and lots of small stations to stop at. But finally we arrived at Hualampong Station (photos 001-007). I confess I had forgotten my plan - I was going to find the subway station, and take the subway to Sukumwit Road. But I forgot, possibly because I was distracted. Before finding the subway, I needed to reserve a ticket for my train trip south in a week. After not being able to get a second class seat on this trip, it was clear I needed to make a reservation if I was going to land a sleeper for the 18-hour ride to Haad Yai on the 18th.
I went to the reservations room, and after a long wait for the couple in front of me who apparently wanted to go to Cuba or maybe Mozambique and would not take "no" for an answer, the nice man looked up the 18th on the computer and said there were no sleepers available on any of the several trains that day. So I settled for the 19th. But that meant I could spend an extra day in Chanthaburi, the sapphire city.
Anyhow, I went out to the street, saw no sign of a subway station, and let a tuk-tuk driver convince me to ride with him to the Grace Hotel. I had to argue with him - he wanted to take me someplace else, and I should have just walked away. It was a very long trip for a tuk-tuk, and not very enjoyable because his was one which had an opaque roof on it, so I couldn't see anything or get any pictures along the way. And when we got to the hotel he wanted $5 more. I gave it to him and sent him on his way - he wanted to stick around in case they were full, but I didn't figure they would be. Not only did they have rooms, they only cost 1500B ($37.50), which is 500B less than I was expecting to pay. So I put four nights on my VISA card, to get the best exchange rate.
The reason I wanted to stay at the Grace Hotel was pure nostalgia. When I lived on Soi 1, the Grace Hotel's basement coffee shop was the only thing open 24 hours nearby, and I hung out there a lot. A soi is a street which intersects a main street, and in this case Sukumwit is the main street. The sois along Sukumwit are numbered odd on one side and even on the other, so Grace of Soi 3 was one block from my apartment on Soi 1.
After I parked my stuff in the room and took a shower and changed, I checked to see if the basement coffee shop was still there. It was, and it is still open 24 hours, but there was nobody in there (it used to be packed 24 hours a day). One reason is the hotel has changed from being German-owned to being owned by Arabs. Also, the hotel has gone up at least one star in class, and the basement coffee shop is definitely no stars.
The hotel has been remodeled, and now has a lavish lobby and a coffee shop which features cheese cake, black forest cake, éclairs and such, and closes at 10 p.m. There is a bit of a shopping mall in the lobby, including the surprising Cambodia Oud shop (photo 064). The hotel also now includes three buildings.
Back out to Sukumwit, I went into Nana Center, a 3-story shopping plaza, and up to the 2nd floor where there was a travel agency/internet cafe which boasted broadband access. It was a pretty good connection. Then I went downstairs where there were a bunch of cell phone kiosks advertising SIM chips and that they could unlock your phone, but they were closed.
Went to the skytrain (BTS) station and bought a card good for 15 trips/300B and took a trip to Victory Monument, where the hotel I first stayed at while I was in Peace Corps was located. I didn't see any evidence of the Hotel Victory, and the place is now a major night market for the locals, the sidewalks jammed with people and vendors. It took me an hour just to extricate myself and find a cab.
The cab took me to Patpong, which is where the sleazy bars and tourist night market is located, and wandering around I stumbled upon Bobby's Arms, a British pub I used to hang out at when I was doing shows with the mostly-Britt Bangkok Community Theater. It was dinner time, and I asked for their famous steak and kidney pie. They were out. Shepherd's pie? Nope. Anything on the menu? No, the waitress told me, but we have bangers and mash, she said, pointing to a hand-lettered sign on loose leaf paper tacked to the nearby pillar. So that's what I had. Not very tasty. No wonder I was the only one in the place eating. Matter of fact, the only other person besides the wait staff looked like he had been in that seat since 1998.
Walked down the block, checked out a few bars, and was surprised at how tall some of the women are. Used to be if a Thai woman was more than 5'4" tall, she was a man.
I also tried a massage, and finally found someone who did not hurt me. It was expensive, though, 1500B ($37.50). After the massage I decided to try my luck at the KFC, and had some chicken. Not bad, not quite like the US, but close. Walked some more through the market, bought a T-shirt, found the skytrain station and went back to the hotel. It require a change from the Silom line to the Sukumwit line at Siam Square (photo 109), but cars come every 5-10 minutes, and it didn't take me long to figure out that I had to go to the other level before crossing the platform - ended up going in the wrong direction the first time.
The cars are COLD. After roasting in Bangkok's heat and humidity, it was like walking into a freezer.
Back to Sukumwit, it took a few tries to find the right side of the street and the right direction to walk in. That was because the station's name is "Nana" which is the name of Soi 3, but the stairs/escalator down to street level actually puts you at Soi 9, 3 blocks away.
Stopped in at a coffee shop, had some cake and a banana shake, and then stopped at a bar which had coin-operated internet PCs. 10B/10 minutes, or $1.50 an hour.
Monday, November 14
Not one of my better days. Woke up way early - 5:30 - had a tough time getting back to sleep. Dressed and out by 9, went to the cell phone kiosks but they weren't open until 10:30. So I walked a few blocks to the BTS station and took the refrigerated train to Soi Ekamai (63), the 1975 site of the Institute for the Promotion of Teaching Science and Technology, (SSWT สสวท in Thai) my first Peace Corps assignment. Soi 63 is also the site of the Eastern bus terminal, so I figured it would be easy to find. But once again the skytrain's Escher-like stairway pattern (photos 40-41) had me walking in the wrong direction on the wrong side of Sukumwit for about a mile before I realized my mistake.
When I visited in 1989, I saw they had put a science museum in what had been our front lawn, near the planetarium (which was there in '75). (photos 47-57). Walking behind the planetarium, I was surprised to find the old สสวท sign pointing to the old office building (photo 54), but at the end of the block there were a pair of large high schools. The Institute had closed in the early 80's, but the sign was still there. Welcome to Thailand.
Back to the skytrain, and Victory Monument (photos 68 and 70). I wanted to see the place in daylight. It is now a huge maze of pedestrian walkways, which allows you to get to any part of the massive intersection without dodging traffic. A major improvement. This is all integrated with the BTS station. Sort of. Another reason I went there was to try to find the Peace Corps office. It had moved since 1975, but even though I had been there in 1989, I couldn't remember exactly where it was. I had the address, and thought the map put it within a few blocks of the monument, but after walking for a couple of hours, it was clear I had misread the map. But I did find a palace (photos 71-73). Photo 76 is what my T-shirt looked like after being out in Bangkok for a couple of hours, despite a cold skytrain ride and a stop at Starbuck's for an iced mocha.
The Starbucks is in the same mall as the cell phone kiosks, you see. I stopped in at one, they tried to put a Thai SIM chip in my phone, but it wouldn't take it. They confirmed what I was told in Mae Hong Son - my phone was locked out of international usage. It spent the rest of my trip turned off and in my luggage.
After drying off, I went shopping for a Thai silk suit. Soi 3 and environs is packed with tailor shops all claiming 24 hour service. There were too many of them for the prices to be any different, so I chose one at random, and bargained my way to a package deal - $280 for jacket, two pairs of pants and 4 shirts, all in silk/cotton blend. They want me back for a jacket fitting tomorrow evening, and will have the clothes ready on the 16th.
On to Soi Asoke (21) on foot. I had lived at 21 Soi 21 during my Bangkok tour, and hung out a lot one block over at Soi 23 - Soi Cowboy. I found the place I'd lived, it appears to be the same building, with the same stairway up to my room, but they seem to have built a hotel around it. Back in '89 Soi Asoke had already been converted from a small 2-lane road to a super-highway, so that was no surprise.
There is not only a skytrain station there, but also a subway station. I'll have to explore that later.
All day I had a bad cold, no doubt from the change from the hot, sweaty outdoors to the skytrain's freezer cars. It was in the mid-90's outside, and probably about 50 inside.
Went to Patpong again, got lost among the maze of sois, poked my head into some of the bars, and found a food stand for some wide rice noodles (quaitiaw) and soda water. Looked at T-shirts and skirts, but didn't buy anything. I found a store selling New Balance tennis shoes, and almost bought a pair, but the only one they found in my size felt like it had no cushioning or support. Maybe it was a fake. Will try another time when I have an hour to spend looking. They wanted $75 a pair - same as the US price.
Got back to the hotel, and as I was putting monkey balm on my Sukhothai mosquito bites, I saw a giant blister between my big toe and whatever they call the toe next to it on my right foot. It was the size of a marble, or maybe a golf ball. I painted it with bentadine, cut it open and drained it, and emptied a small bottle of hydrogen peroxide into it. That ought to do it.
Bought some medicinal Mekong whisky (aka furniture polish remover) and drank about half a flask as I planned the next day's itinerary:
- Taxi to the PC offices
- Drop off the laundry
- 2 pm jacket fitting
- PM - if I'm feeling up to it - take the camera to Patpong and see if a lovely tall young Chiang Mai woman I met there wants to hang out with me for my birthday.
Tuesday, November 15
Still have a cold. Stayed in bed till 9, dropped the laundry at a place down the street for an 8 pm pickup tomorrow. Slow! But they wanted 50% more for same-day. Decided not to go to the PC offices - I don't know anyone there anyway, and they don't have much of a program anymore. Went to the PO, mailed some stuff from Sukhothai, and bought two more boxes for the silk suit & shirts. Back to the hotel, and slept.
2 pm, at the suit shop. The place is run by Indians, but the tailor is Thai. Of course he is 15 minutes late. He does the fitting, and not knowing I speak Thai, he makes some rude comments about the way the shop guy did the measurements. But all in all he is pleased, and is able to make the adjustments he needs. The jacket-in-progress looks excellent.. It's a silk-looking texture, royal blue. Lighter than navy.
Wandered around the neighborhood, have an interesting conversation with a transvestite "call me lady-boy" who wanted me to go to a no-tell motel with her/him/it. Turns out this person has a sister who is upset with his long hair more than his lifestyle.
It's getting to be dinner time, and I decide to go to Siam Square, which used to be famous for its western food - the first ice cream parlor in the country opened there the week I left Peace Corps. Birthday dinner, I picked the Outback Steak House, and had an excellent prime rib, and the "chocolate thunder" dessert. A first-class dinner, at the astronomical cost of 1500B - $37.50. Since I was in the neighborhood, I went into the Siam Square Center, and stumbled on a wine & cheese party for the museum's Egyptian exhibit, complete with models made up in gold paint and ancient Egyptian outfits (photos 102-107).
Skytrain to Silom, looked for my Chiang Mai friend, but she was nowhere to be found. Walked around a bit, took lots of photos of the sleazy bars (photos 110-120) and found a massage place where they advertised modern massage (it's the ancient massage which hurts) and had a very nice pain-free rubdown by a masseuse from the northeast (photo 122).
Took the skytrain back to Sukumwit, and decided the best thing for my cold was some more medicinal whisky. And I wanted to see if what I'd heard about Nana Plaza was true. It was, and more. Nana Plaza is the bar equivalent of a 3-story mall. Shaped like a U, about a block wide and 2/3 of a block deep, it has about 10 bars on each level, side by side. After making the grand tour I picked one called the Rainbow Bar and went in for my medication. I was served by an adorable young woman named "Noi", and we hit it off right away. I stayed till closing time (1 am), and promised to come back tomorrow after the Loi Krathong festival. I would have asked her out then, but I didn't want to pass along my cold.
So, back to the hotel, self-medicated some more and went to sleep.
Wednesday, November 16 Loi Krathong
Slept in, was out and about by 11 am, still have the cold. Took the skytrain to Soi Asoke, and went to the subway (MRT) station, heading for Silom, and lined up for the ticket machine. I expected to get a card, but instead the machine cranked out what looked like a wooden token. Except it was probably some kind of plastic. Thicker than a coin, about as big around as a nickel. I had no idea what to do with it. I went to the turnstyle, where people had been holding their monthly passes in front of a proximity reader, but there was no slot for the token. So I went to the help window and asked. Silly you, they said, just hold the token to the sensor. There's a chip inside, programmed with your destination. Amazing but true, it worked. And at the other end of the trip, it goes into a slot and is eaten by the turnstyle machine.
The subway is very modern, and sterile. (photos 124-125) The trains arrive behind glass doors, so you don't really see the trains themselves. I take the trip to Silom and back just for the experience, then skytrain to Nana and back to the hotel for a nap. At 5 pm I'm at the suit shop, everything is ready to pick up. Back to the hotel, I try everything on, it all fits perfectly and looks great. The shirts don't look like silk, though, there's a lot of cotton in the mix. But I guess I knew that when I picked out the material.
The last skytrain trip I saw an ad for a big Loi Krathong thing at the national stadium, so I took the skytrain there. Looked over the rail and the place was deserted. Someone goofed - the stadium was being used for the ASEAN games, and all that was going on was a pick-up soccer game out front. So I took the train in the other direction, to Saphan Taksin, since Saphan means "bridge". I figure any bridge which has its own BTS station is a good candidate for a water festival. And I was right. The area was really hopping. Very crowded, lots of westerners amongst the locals, too. Was also surprised to see Harry Potter movie billboards at the station (photo 134).
There was a makeshift krathong market leading to the river (photos 136-151) and it was so crowded I wasn't able to get to the boat dock for a tour of the river (photo 154) but the real action was across the bridge, so I walked up the several flights of steps to the roadway, pushed through the crowds, and got some nice blurry photos of the lighted up boats (photos 155-160 were taken at the docks, 162-174 from the bridge).
Photos 175-198 show the festival and some scenery around the bridge, photo 196 shows the bridge walkway crowd. It was a big party, there were tons of police, but I didn't see any rowdies or trouble. If anyone was drunk, they kept it to themselves.
Eventually made my way back to Sukhumwit, picked up my laundry, dropped it at the hotel, and then went to Rainbow bar and picked up Noi. She says 55 is a good age for her, her father is 70, I would fit right in as a son-in-law.
Thursday, November 17
Packed the suit jacket, 2 silk shirts one pair of silk pants, plus some books and laundry into the post office boxes, and packed my gear for the trip to Chanthaburi. Off to the Tung Lo post office, Noi rode as far as the Tung Lo station with me, she lives at the end of the line. I mailed the packages, went back to the hotel and checked out.
Walked back to the skytrain, got off at Soi Ekamai (63) and walked the one block to the bus station. It's 11:45 am, I bought a ticket for 173B ($4.33) on the noon tour bus to Chanthaburi.
And that will be my next chapter.