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Saturday, November 26
The flight from Phuket to Bangkok was okay, we had some turbulence, and it was pretty cloudy. I got some good photos of Phuket and the Andaman Sea (photos 1-7) and some typical hazy shots of Bangkok from the air (photos 9-10). We arrived one minute early, at 10:34, but it took 10 minutes to get the door open. Baggage arrived in 20 minutes, and I am very nervous because when I was packing in Nai Yang, the top main zipper of the pack separated, and though it re-closed okay by unzipping and re-zipping, who knows what might happen during the flight. Luckily it held. Adding to my to-do list "get real luggage". I won't need a backpack in China or on my trip home, and something hard-shelled with wheels would be nice for future trips. Patpong has lots of places which sell pretty good stuff cheap.
Instead of paying the 200B for a taxi downtown, I take a cab to Mo Chit skytrain station, 90B, and use my skytrain card to get to Nana. First stop is Nana Hotel, but they are full. So are the next 6 places I try on that side of Sukhumwit. Landmark (the 10-star hotel which takes up a city block, has a Japanese rooftop restaurant and a circular driveway bigger than some hotels) has rooms - for $175 a night. No thanks. Plan B was the Novatel on Soi 23, but when I get to Soi 23 there are no hotels. Must have been Soi 33. I don't feel like going that far, because I'm hot and sweaty and tired of looking. I look back towards the lower numbered streets, and see a Sheraton, which might work. Work is paying for this weekend, so any reasonable (<$100) price would work. As I climb the overpass stairs, I look back and see a place on Soi 19 called City Lodge, which looks like my kind of hotel. It's near Soi Cowboy, a few buildings back from Sukhumwit Road. So, back downstairs. They have rooms, 1800B ($45) a night, so I book for two nights. Big room, King bed, full western bathroom, small balcony with a view of the Westin across the soi. And the room is pitch dark when the curtains are closed, which is the way I like it.
Shower and change, and hop the skytrain for Chitlom and the Central Department Store. In the 70's, this was the place to get Farang things. It is on a similar plan to Macy's, and was the only place which had a Christmas tree back then. It's also famous for its music department. They have everything from Madonna's latest to ancient Northern Thai classical music. My first stop is the shoe department. They have very little to choose from in the way of tennis shoes, so I ask about Hush Puppies, for which they have a display card saying they have wide widths. But the salescreatures don't understand width. They only know about length. I try on a couple of size 11's, but they are C or D, which doesn't work for my wide feet. Time to move one - I'll try Patpong again for shoes. Up two floors, I find the sports department, and they have tons of tennis shoes. Half the floor is tennis shoes. I immediately find a pair of New Balance in the style, size and width I want, and buy them. They are 25% off, 1900B ($47.50) which is about half the US price. Up one more floor and I buy a sky blue ski jacket for 1800B. I'm not sure about the style and color, but it will keep me warm in China. Up to the 7th floor, where I spend a lot of time trying to decide how many CDs to buy. I get Pink and Girlie Berry, and also a 10-pack which says it is man-woman duets. All in all, I spend 1000B on music. My shopping done, I go back to the hotel, put the jacket in the closet, shower and change into "China" clothes. A cotton shirt and pants from Phuket, cotton socks and my new Nb's. I have a late lunch at a fancy seafood place on the other side of Sukhumwit - 540B for two dishes and soda. Way too much, lousy service, and there is only one other table occupied in the place. They are mostly a dinner outfit - featuring a stage with Thai classical dancing and music after 8 pm.
Next is the skytrain to Patpong, where I had hoped to poke my head into a couple of bars, but nobody was open. On my way back to the skytrain station I found exactly the kind of luggage I was looking for - a hard shelled silver wheeled 22" bag. I talk them down to 1000B ($25). The Samsonite version in the US would cost $170.
Back to the hotel to drop off the new aquisition, then across the street, I go to Soi Cowboy, flirt outside some of the bars, and chat with one of the girls there, named "Juum". She poses for a couple of photos in front of the curtain they have in lieu of a front door (photos 14-15). She's from Kalasin, one of the places I spent time at in the 70's, up north, it's famous for its silk-cotton blend hand-weaving. But she isn't really my type, too much of a gold-digger and besides, Noi is expecting me down at Nana Plaza. Somewhere in there I had dinner at a German/Swiss place on the corner of Soi Cowboy and Soi 21, I forget what I had, or if it was any good.
At about 22:00 I go to the Rainbow Bar, and Noi is there and happy to see me. She has tomorrow off, so we plan on doing some touristy things together.
Sunday, November 27
Noi comes over to the hotel, we hang around till 11, and then take the skytrain to Soi Asoke, subway to Hualampang train station, and a taxi to Sanaam Luang, the grand palace and Wat Prakaew area. Most of the temple photos you have seen of Bangkok were probably taken here.
We get off at Sanaam Luang, a huge oval about the size of a race track, which used to have a lawn in the center for kite flying, surrounded on weekends by hundreds of street vendors selling everything from books to temple rubbings to art calendars to teak elephants. It is deserted. There's a section of bleachers set up at the far end (we later read in the newspaper that the night before a radio talk show host had held an anti-Prime Minister rally there). Nobody is flying kites, there are no vendors. Bummer. But come to think of it, I saw the same thing in 1989. (photos 19-20).
Noi is a country girl and since she works way on the other end of Bangkok, she's never been here. And it's been 15 years since I have. As soon as we get past the oval, she points out an open-air tour bus, the sign says it will take us on a tour of the neighborhood for a mere 25B. She wants to go, and it sounds good to me. We go over there, and she talks to the nice lady at the ticket booth. They don't start till 1 pm. It's 12:35, so we walk down the block and find a place for lunch.
It's a little hole in the wall restaurant which used to be a German tavern, but is now Thai except for the fixtures and wall decorations. Noi orders for us: a beef dish, veggies and an omelet plus rice. Good food. Around 1:15 we head back to the park near the tour stand, and listen to some really bad singing and guitar playing by one of the local hippies (photo 24). We take the 1:30 tour, which takes us around the neighborhood, but they are going too fast for photos, so I only get a few of the outside of the temple grounds (25-28). The bus driver narrates in Thai, lots of info about the history of the area, and Noi is eating it all up. Interesting tour, but not what we had expected. The sign made it sound like they went into the temple complex.
We both want to see the grounds from the inside, so we cross the street and go to the entry gate. The attendant says I need to buy tickets at the booth we passed about 100 yards behind us. So I go and buy a set of tickets. Noi tries to buy tickets, and they tell her it's free for Thais. She is very upset about this, she tells me it isn't fair for Farangs to have to pay when Thais don't have to. I tell her she is already paying through her taxes, but she doesn't buy that, since this is Royal property and a Buddhist shrine, and should not be for profit.
One of my tickets is for the Royal relics collection, which is in a building just before the main gate. We go inside, and see an exhaustive collection of coins, medals, swords scepters, jewels, garments, etc. which show a lot of the royal history. Noi is captivated, and looks very closely at everything. Meanwhile, we are dodging tour groups which are flying through on the "it's 1:18, this must be the scepter of Rama V" plan. The tour guide has 15-20 clients, he/she finds a display case to stand next to, gives a short canned talk about that section of the room, and moves on. It takes 10-20 seconds. The Chinese groups are easy to recognize because their guide is shouting loudly, and they will trample us in order to get from point A to point B. There are many English-speaking tourists, mostly couples and not in tour groups. When they hear me and Noi speaking Thai, and reading the info posters, some of them will ask me for more information about the displays. In the land of the blind, as they say. Once when I was puzzling over a paragraph about the life of a king I had never heard of, I asked Noi to read it to me, and she said she couldn't understand it either, it was written in academic language, outside of her vocabulary too. Unfortunately, they don't allow photography in this building, there is a ton of gorgeous material there.
On to the main gate. Noi is still complaining about the unfairness of it all. Anyhow, she goes in through the Thai-only turnstile and I hand in my ticket and go through the Visitor's gate. We are in photographer's heaven. I could easily have taken a thousand photos, and I kept reminding myself that everyone who has ever been to Bangkok has these pictures too, so don't overdo it. Still, lots of pictures of pretty sparklie things. Photos 29-71 are all I took.
The main attraction and our final stop inside the complex is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Noi needs to go inside and pray her respects, this is a legendary Buddha image, and she can't leave without going in and praying. I don't want to take off my shoes (and maybe never find them again - photo 64) and besides, I can see the statue from outside. It's actually jade, not emerald (photo 65). So I guard her shoes as she goes inside. I get about 20 minutes of people-watching before she comes out and puts her shoes back on.
Out into the real world again, Noi wants to go to the river, another place she has never been. The Chao Prya River is Thailand's Mississippi, it is long and wide and has a lot of passenger traffic. When we're on the docks, she asks about tour boats, and is told 1200B a person. As we walk away, they change it to 900B, and then 600B. Noi says let's just take a ferry to the other side and back. 3B per person per crossing. So we do this. But then she gets a brilliant idea, why don't we take the water taxi to Saphan Taksin, where we can hop the Skytrain back to the hotel? So she asks around, and we're told we have to cross the river again to get the water taxi. So we do, and buy tickets for 19B each. It's a 15-minute wait, but the wait is worth it, because we're almost at the other end of town from Taksin, and it's about the same trip as the tour boat. (photos 72-81).
We get the skytrain, and Noi gives me a goodbye hug at my Soi Asoke stop, she will continue on to her stop at the end of the line. It's sad to say goodbye. She is bright and perky and we enjoy being with each other.
Back at the hotel, I put away the camera, put the battery in the charger and remove the memory chip, putting in my last one - I'm glad I bought the extra one on my first trip to Bangkok. It's 6 pm, time to find dinner. Skytrain to Silom/Suriwongse, dinner at a Farang hotel's restaurant. I went inside to get away from the traffic and noise, where the food was good and not too expensive for a Farang place. Spring rolls, green curried chicken with roti (fried fluffy Indian flat round bread - looks like a tortilla, tastes like fillo) and mango with sticky rice for dessert. Afterwards visited the Three Kings bar again, found the women who were supposed to meet me there on my birthday, had a couple of soda waters with them and enjoyed the scenery for about an hour. On the way back to skytrain, I see a jacket which looks like a much better choice than the ski jacket. It's black with red trim, a knock-off Ferrari racing jacket. They have it in 2XL, it fits perfectly, and is just the weight I think I'll need in China. And it's only 300B. Sold.
Back at the hotel, arrange for a wake-up call and tomorrow's taxi to the airport. The City Lodge is part of the Amari hotel chain, which runs the airport transit hotel, so I ask at the front desk if she can get me a deal on an overnight stay December 3. I was thinking my trip from Bangkok to Taipei was at 9am on the 4th, and I didn't want to schlep all the way downtown and have to be back at the airport at 7 the next morning. She calls the airport hotel, but it's high season, so no deals. They want $285 a night! Yikes!
Back in my room, I look at my itinerary to see what Plan B might be, and discover I have been having a Senior Moment, my flight to bangkok on the 3rd arrives at about 5 pm, and my plane to Taipei leaves 24 hours later. I have plenty of time to stay downtown. I'll burn that bridge when I come to it.
Time to pack. My first instinct is to simply place my fully loaded backpack inside the new bag, but it won't close. They are the same size. So my next trick is to take everything out of the pack, flatten it against the bottom of the hard shell bag, then load everything on top of it. Same problem. okay, how about without the fluffy ski jacket? Almost. How about if I take out the Ferrari jacket, SF Giants cap and put them in the carry-on shopping bag with the ski jacket and my meds? That works. But then I start thinking, do I really want to have a pack which may burst open on me sometime in the future when I've forgotten all about that problem? Not really.
So I take out the pack, fold it up, and shove it into the garbage. So sad, it served me well, is very well designed for travel, and really just needs a metal zipper. Which would probably cost as much to have put in as the pack cost in the first place.
Monday, November 28
Up at 6:30, out by 7:30. Taxi is waiting for me, we go to the airport. When we arrive, I discover he did not have his meter on, and he tries to rip me off for 450B. The metered trip wouldn't have cost 200. I compromise and give him 300, since he had to pay about 50B in toll road fees, and he did get me there fast. Breakfast at a Thai place in the airport, duck soup for 200B. I thought I was on time - in line at 9:50 for the passport check, but it's a long line and it's not moving much, and I'm not through the checkpoint until 10:20. The plane leaves at 10:40, and my gate was waaaaay at the other end of the terminal. So I put my Nb's into high gear and make it to the gate just as they started boarding.
Thai airways boards in two groups - people in wheel chairs and first class is one group, everyone else is the other group. It ain't pretty.
Through the gate, we go down a flight of stairs, where we are loaded on a bus which takes us out to the plane, and we walk up the stairs into the aircraft. This is not my idea of the way the flagship line at a major international airport should be doing things.
The plane is comfortable, 3-3 seating, lots of leg room, and a smooth flight.
And that's it for this segment of my story. Next: Chengdu, China.