Thailand part 4: Ayutthaya and Bangkok

Ayutthaya

Ayutthaya

Aboard the bus, I had plenty of time to think about my next move. The more I read and heard about Bangkok, the least it became interesting so upon arriving there, I would have to find a nearby escape to spend a couple more days before my flight. Ayutthaya was the perfect candidate. One hour an half from the capital, small and full of ruins from one of Thailand’s first empires so I took a taxi to the other bus station and got there.

After a solid 3 hours nap in fan-cooled hostel room. I got downstairs to work for a while and heard some French spoken with that peculiar accent that we have back home. Having not talked to anyone of a familiar culture for a while, I cooked up a way to engage a conversation, rehearsed it a couple times in my head and started conversing with Jean-Michel, whose name I already knew because I had seen it in the guest book. However, I was pleased to learn that we had much in common than our home, including the fact that he was at the start of an Asian journey himself. Having each made other plans for the remainder of the afternoon, we parted ways but decided we should meet later on for drinks; great, I had found a friend for the night (somewhat important when you travel alone).

In spite of the almost unbearable afternoon heat, I set out to explore part of the ruin complex of Ayutthaya, a UNESCO world heritage site. Mostly buildings of religious functions it seemed but square kilometers’ worth of them. Yes, I had seen my share of temples before on this trip but at least, those were in ruins and of a different architectural style: Khmer. It was too late to visit anyone of them so I contented myself of a walk around and soon enough was back at my hostel for some more quality time online.

An hour or so later, Jean-Michel showed up, bought a beer and we started talking about the thinks travelers talk about: travels. At least though, he had some pretty unusual experiences to recount, for instance his recent visit to Iran. Interested in the perspective of touring this unlikely destination, I picked hist brain about it while he picked mine about North-Korea and China. Then out of nowhere, another westerner pulled-up to our table from the street and very politely told us that for the last three days he had been alone and wondered if he could sit down and join our conversation. Of course we both replied. Instantly, he let out in impressive French: “Nous pouvons parler Français si vous voulez”. It’s not everyday that between different nationalities you can afford to speak your own tongue. Normally, everyone defaults to English because its the only second language they know or out of courtesy for those that don’t speak anything else. Manuel however, was from Spain but at the moment living in Ireland and spoke near-perfect French and even better Italian it seemed. Later-on, I would learn that his parents were diplomats and that on top he himself nurtured a passion for linguistics but still, according to my book, the more languages you speak, the less likely you are of being an idiot and Manuel more than confirmed that rule.

Anyway, with Manuel now integrated in our little francophone circle, we carried on to a small street food stand for dinner and then went to a nearby bar. There, a lone French forcibly imposed his presence on us and normally, it’s not that we would have cared, on the contrary, we would have done him the same favor we did Manuel some hours ago. Problem was, he had such a shitty attitude and showed complete and unabated cynicism towards every possible subject of conversation we brought up. Jean-Michel quickly got fed up and left and soon after Manuel and I followed suit but not without him and I setting a meeting time the next day for some more exploration of the ruins. As for Jean-Michel, he had to leave early in the morning.

Taking a picture of Manuel taking a picture

Taking a picture of Manuel taking a picture

The next day, with the temperature even hotter than the day before, Manuel and I rented bicycles and proceeded to tour some temples and ruins for the afternoon. Through that 20 kilometer circuit we did all around Ayutthaya, we stopped at numerous ruins. At some of them for a bit longer than I would have preferred, but Manuel is a photographer. Not the kind of would-be photographer that lugs around a large reflex everywhere to capture even the most insignificant moments of his vacations, no Manuel appeared thoughtful in the shots that he took. There is not secret with photography, it’s one good picture for a thousand bad ones, so Manuel was still pressing shutter button way more than I did, but at least, there was method in the way he did things and I enjoyed observing the objects or vistas that piqued his interest, scraping bits of information about the art of photography in the process. A skill I have a dire need to improve myself on, the disastrous images I put on this blog are testament to that. I never showed him my pictures, but he certainly showed me his and he had credentials to prove that while still an amateur, his aspirations were justified. Every now and then, he holds exhibitions in Dublin where he sells some prints and frankly, some of his images are definitely worth the euros that he charges for them. For those interested in checking out his work, he has a regularly updated blog with many of his pictures on it and also a Flickr account where most of his work ends up.

All credit to Manuel Pombo for this one

Waiting for the ferry

Waiting for the ferry

That afternoon, we both must have drank three liter of water and as Manuel pointed out, not once did we go to the bathroom. The day ended with a long ride to the Portuguese settlement, which the map led us to believe that it was a little picturesque colonial village, but was just an excavated church. Interestingly, they also had unearthed the whole cemetery behind the church and exposed the bones, some of them in display cases without any means of securing them. I thought a human vertebrae would make a nice pendant, but for fear of the kind of end that will await these heretic Thai archaeologists for desecrating christian sepultures, I abstained and let the dead rest in peace. I’m kidding about stealing human parts, but I could not help to think that such a thing would never occur in a christian country. The Thais thought, being exclusively all Buddhists, do not care much for their mortal flesh and bones. I’m digressing. Luckily after, our God rewarded us with a ferry ride across the river instead of a 10 kilometers bike ride back to the previous bridge.

After a work session for me and some blogging for Manuel, we again dined on street food, had some beers around which we talked of many things including but not limited to travelling, life, the future and blogging. Then we both set out in our respective direction as he was going North for the remainder of his vacation and I was going to Bangkok.

Bangkok

I remember hearing that the train ride to Bangkok was quite scenic, so instead of a crowded bus in which I would have to have both of my backpacks on my knees, I got myself a train ticket for a measly 14 baht. As expected the train was late, but I was pleased to find myself back in the same sort of car as on my first Thai train, except this one had windows. At the main train station, I passed the hordes of tuk-tuk drivers offering rip-off rates to gullible tourists, hoped in taxi and went straight for Khaosan road, Bangkok’s backpacker Vegas, a whole district of bars, restaurants, souvenir stalls, tattoo parlors, massage places; in short, the best Thailand has to offer.

Poutine!

Poutine!

I had made sure my hostel was within walking distance but not too close from the action so I got there, checked-in, worked a while and headed out in search of today’s only goal: a restaurant since it was too late to go sightseeing. Except that it was not to be any restaurant, I was looking for Snack Bar BKK, originally named Poutine Sans Frontières (Poutine without borders). The joint was started up by a celebrity from back home, Bruno Blanchet and you’d be hard pressed to find in Québec someone who has not heard of this famous comedian. One day, he was fed up with life in Canada I guess and decided to pack his bags for an around the world trip of which he has yet to come back from I think. Or he might actually never return, he has written several books on travelling and animates some globe-trotting related shows on TV. He also appeared to have liked Thailand so much that he made himself a girlfriend there and opened a poutine stall, which eventually evolved into Snack Bar BKK, a proper restaurant. This made the rounds in Canadian media back then so when I hit Bangkok, I absolutely had to have a Poutine there. The restaurant was easy to find, it had a large Québec and a Montréal Canadiens flag and was playing hockey on TV. Not the two things I’m most proud of from my culture, but just like in Pai, it felt good to see things from home so far away. Once there, I sat and got greeted by Bruno’s son (who now manages the place), sat down and ordered this much sought after dish from back home and a beer, in French s’il vous plaît.

Khosan road at  night

Khosan road at night

Unsurprisingly, I was not alone there. I mean there were some Germans munching on pad thais, but I could count at least four other French-Canadians. Since this was our little hangout in Bangkok so I granted myself the permission to impose myself in an ongoing conversation about the hardships of finding parking in downtown Québec City. First-world problems. I had to keep it shut for a lack of anything to bring to the discussion, but after a short while, the two ladies left us to go pack their things for an early morning departure and it was me and Neil. My spree of meeting interesting individuals was to continue it looked like. Neil was a self-employed construction project appraiser, worked remotely during the winter while travelling and built houses during the summer, had a passion for things on two-wheels and several lengthy adventures under his belt. We left Snack bar BKK and took the party to Khaosan road where for a couple more hours we sat at a table and chit-chatted about our shared interests. Once came the time to pay the bill, the waiter asked us if we were Italian. Odd, generally, strangers to French tend to assume I speak some sort of Scandinavian language, but Italian? Neil and I could not really figure out where he had pulled it from. Regrettably, my new acquaintance was leaving the capital for the islands early the next morning so we gave each other a solid manly handshake and set off and our own direction.

Fancy Bentleys

Fancy Bentleys

Last time I had seen rain in South-East Asia was in Singapore. That morning was to be second time. Daydreaming at breakfast with my eyes fixed in the canal below, I spotted what seemed to be a dog swimming below but as it got closer it started resembling something else until I saw it getting out of the water. It was a 2 meter long monitor lizard swimming in the thrash. Poor dogs, having to share the gutter with immense reptiles. When it pours in Asia, its no joke, but it only lasts for a while and then stops, so I waited it out with a nap and by the time I had woken up, the rain had stopped. Remembering my last day in Thailand had to be devoted to the exploration of Bangkok, I set towards the shopping centers. Why? Because when people had been talking about Bangkok, they talked about shopping centers and I had to investigate and indeed, these shopping centers are worth a mention. Large and incredibly luxurious, I toured them in absolute awe while Russians and Middle-eastern tourists as well as rich Thai kids were spending their vacation money or monthly allowance away. As for myself, I bought a whole lot of nothing and soon had enough of the atmosphere. Thankfully, Bangkok still lives between its malls and rich condos and on the way there and back, got a glimpse of the citizens living life as usual. Until I hit the site of the very publicized Thai protests, which I swear I was not looking for. As I was walking in the direction of what looked like a barricade in the distance, I was intercepted by a visibly irritated local who insisted on me not going there. I shrugged him and kept walking. In this polarizing crisis, I guess he was on the pro-government side.

The protesters had taken over several blocks of the city and had set-up camp on their major boulevards much in a city-within-a-city fashion, with tent districts, clinics, restaurants, showers, laundromats two immense covered theaters where as I was walking through a concert was going on in one and a speech in the other. Impressive. Of course, I restrained my photo taking, but not once did I get weird look. In fact, I got many smiles and even enjoyed a short conversation with a friendly monk. And I was not the only foreigner there, I passed a couple of them who had obviously no business as journalist and were simply on a little excursion in this strange part of Bangkok. If only one thing, the protesters actually want more foreigners going through and taking pictures, it gives them publicity and fills the void created by the media’s short attention span when things quiet down and the violence subsides. Once passed the maze of sand-bags and concertina barricades, I was back in the city.

That night was spent quietly having some food and beers (hard to find because of election day) with an eclectic bunch and the next day, I was off to Bangkok’s new airport to catch a flight to Ho Chi Minh city in Vietnam, where my friend from back home would join me later that night. The overly luxurious shopping malls found in Thailand are not the only tell-tale sign of its increasing wealth, its flagship airport is too. Immense and beautiful, its a marvel of modern architecture. A good last impression of Bangkok I guess. It remains that there is a side of the city I would have liked to experience, the dirty side, the dance and ping-pong shows (google that), the upscale bars, the crazy markets. No worries, I will most likely come back through on my way to another place and even if I don’t, there will be even more of that good stuff in the future.

Reflections on Thailand

Was Thailand all that I expected it to be? Yes. Was it fun? Yes. Was it a country I would do anything to come back to? No. It could have been my fault for staying on the beaten path, but it seems that the tourism industry has become so large and omnipresent that it’s now very difficult to escape it without having to go to lengths about it. Almost everything is geared towards foreigners and appears artificial. As a consequence, I could not develop a good appreciation for the Thai culture as they do not really expect you to be outside of the sightseeing routes and any attempt at exploring on your own will often lead to them directing you back towards the tourist pen. They treat you differently and its obvious. Thailand should be taken as a destination of leisure and pleasure rather than one of culture.

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