Life is full--yesterday morning felt like five days ago. I've learned a lot so far. Mainly, that I'm far less worldly than I thought, but also far more resourceful.
Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport
So, I know the airport in Taipei probably doesn't seem like the first thing I should start extolling the virtues of, but I'm going to anyway [revealing straightaway my conspicuous lack of worldliness].
We had a layover there and I almost sad to leave. That airport is a veritable fucking theme park; I was laughing my entire time there. When we showed up to our gate, it was decorated with Chinese brush painting on the walls, overhanging lamps masquerading as paper lanterns, am expensive-looking fake frog pond made of glass. The gate had a name, even. Underneath the facade of a traditional wooden roof a sign read, "Taiwan Image." I thought this was cute.
Then I wandered down the corridor. Next door was the gate "Postal Waiting Room", guarded by a fat penguin-looking postal worker that reeked Sanrio, a flock of airmail-envelope-paper-planes taking flight over wavy upholstered blue benches. Another was book themed, stocked with several shelves of free books. Another was Hello Kitty themed, complete with a playplace and rainbow amphitheater. Another looked like a room in a museum, full of Taiwanese ceremonial artifacts sitting pretty behind glass and plaques.
Amidst the shops were eerie fake living room displays: a mantle, lamp, mid-game pool table, upholstered furniture, and picture-framed screen looping the same commercial over and over promoted Glenlivet in a display of charming overkill. Random aesthetic sanctuaries dotted the corridor: a room full of flower arrangements in which one could unwind from any in-transit anxiety. Amidst the icons for "Restroom" and "Smoking lounge" was a kneeling figure, which directed one to the prayer room. All the airport staff looked like dolls that had just come out of their shrink wrap--many were in silly costumes [especially those working near the Hello Kitty gate], standing as still as members of the Queen's Guard, and their hair and makeup was done up to a degree of perfection I rarely see in the states [on the men, as well as the women].
The "Green Relaxing Room" cracked me up the most--in it were several life-sized dioramas of the jungle or beach, complete with backdrops, fake rocks and trees, and sand. I forced Alex to indulge me in taking fake tourist photos in front of these, much to the amusement of other foreigners passing by.
Upon our 3:00a.m. arrival, everything we'd been told to expect was acted out for us in real-time, which made me feel like we were navigating through a video game after reading how to beat it. I'd been given instructions on exactly what to do, which was lucky because I was far too tired to think for myself.
Customs was so quick and easy that we didn't realize we'd already passed through it.
Immediately, "discount" taxi drivers tried to chivvy us into their cars--I'd been told this would happen, and that I should ignore them. We headed down to the lower level and got a cab. The driver asked to see my taxi receipt, which in addition to the location information is also the only way I can keep track of the driver and send in a complaint if he tries to rip us off, and tried to pocket it--as I'd been told he might. As soon as we were in the car, he tried to haggle a fixed fare with me--I'd been told not to oblige, no matter how good the offer sounded [he started at 500 baht for a 37 km ride--about $15 for 23 miles].
"No. Meter, please." After a bit of insisting that a flat fare would actually be cheaper for me, he reluctantly turned on the meter. Once we arrived, the cab fare--after the airport tax and two tolls--was about $9.
Andrew, a photographer I'd worked with back in Reno had comped us a hotel for our first two nights in Bangkok, since we were planning to shoot in Pattaya. When we stumbled into the lobby, it took me several minutes to realize that he was standing right there next to the concierge, and had been waiting.
"About time you got here!"
"Yeah...what is it, 4 a.m.? My brain's pretty fried. So when are you heading to Pattaya?"
"Well. I'm leaving town today."
"Today? Change of plans? I thought you'd be here until at least the 22nd."
"Today is the 22nd."
I laughed deliriously at this, but his face didn't change.
"I booked your room from the 20th-22nd, since you said your flight got in early morning of the 21st. That was yesterday."
"...Wait." My jet lag-addled brain exploded. "...Fuck...ah. Fuck...? Shit. Wait..."
Lesson one: Don't blindly trust the flight itinerary at the expense of common sense. [Or, more generally, double-check things.] Apparently...just because the arrival's time has been adjusted, doesn't mean the date has.
Luckily for us, Andrew was extremely generous [despite his obvious and completely justified annoyance] and had already bought us an extra night. He showed us to our room--it was exceedingly trendy. All the fixtures and furniture seemed to scream, "Look how excessively fucking modern we are!" There were two different showerheads, and a sliding pervert-door in case someone in the bedroom wanted to look into the bathroom. We had robes and our own backyard patio, canopied in tropical trees I'd never seen before, with fruits that looked like strings of anal beads.
My guilt was overshadowed only by my exhaustion. Andrew told us to get an hour or two of sleep and to meet him for breakfast at the Radisson at 6:30--and that I shouldn't be too overwrought with guilt, because the room [which would easily be several hundred dollars a night in America] was about $40/night.
We did, and when I mentioned making it up to him and heading to Pattaya, he seemed undecided and gave no clear answers. However, he was quite cheerful, and told us all about the most recent local scams and political unrest, and what tourist traps to avoid. As we left, he told us to have a good time and vaguely inferred that I should keep abreast-ish of my emails.
Incidentally, I'm writing all of this from one of the computers at CitiChic; it's a gorgeous morning and we're about to check out and head to a Couchsurfing host's place and I don't know when I'll next have a keyboard at my disposal. Alex is running around, making sure we have potable water and looking into taking a water taxi.
In the morning we opted to run around, rather than crash out and exacerbate our jet lag. Arbitrarily we chose Lomphini Park as a more-or-less destination, since it'd give us a direction to go in, which can be a tough thing to settle on when there's really nowhere at all one needs to be.
No American city I've been to is as densely overstimulating as
Bangkok--so full of color and noise and fast-moving activity. On the
streets were countless vendors constantly either selling food or getting
ready for the next rush; motorcycle taxis zipped around with well-to-do
clients sitting sidesaddle behind them. Several times, I nearly stepped
on someone or crossed a busy street without realizing. New York might
as well be a desolate expanse. Las Vegas, Oakland, San Francisco, New
Orleans--all quiet and sparse.
The instant we set out the door, the cacophonous bustle grabbed us in a chokehold: stampedes of motorcyclists cutting corners as if they were already shitfaced at 9a.m.; cars driving all over the wrong lanes and crooked sidewalks; a stray dog sleeping in a bed of tied-off trash bags; a horde of about twelve rats clearly having a momentous shindig behind a vacant food stall; massive clumps of telephone wires sagging overhead, tied together spaghetti-esque with no seeming rhyme or reason. From these clumps of wires I heard a loud buzzing: the sound of something arcing.
"That's not really a sound we're supposed to hear," Alex said mildly. Nonetheless, the buzzing exerted its recurring presence in our day, which we found amusing. Granted, we were in a bit of a stupor and found everything amusing; for several minutes we stood and anthropomorphized a group of pigeons, dubbing over their pigeon-talk. We walked by several construction workers in bandana-balaclavas who were using metal grinders and saws right in the middle of the sidewalk, which inspired us to make a string of OSHA jokes that wouldn't have been funny to anyone else.
Lesson two: In Bangkok, the first phrase one should learn isn't "Hello," "Thank you," "You're welcome,"
"Discount?" or "No problem," all of which I'd gone ahead and committed to memory.
In fact, it's "No, thank you," the one no-brainer phrase that hadn't occurred to me to learn.
Within five minutes, we'd been approached by every type of would-be
scanner that we'd been warned about: congenial and well-dressed men pretending to
recognize us from somewhere, women with clipboards trying to get us in on a contest, taxi and tuk-tuk drivers trying to coax us into their
vehicles, calling after us in ceaseless succession that we looked lost and that they could help
Again, it felt like a video game: they all fit their character roles so perfectly, and my responses were such to-the-letter reenactments of advice I'd been given. Sensory overload notwithstanding, it was pretty fun, and while my perma-smile was borne of insomniac delirium and cultural pressure [in Thailand one's expected to smile, even--and especially--during less comfortable interactions], it was sincere.
Third lesson: learning the Thai alphabet [or printing it out and carrying it around] would've been a lot more helpful than learning basic phrases and numbers, since Thai people all know how to say those things in English, anyway. But several street and station signs aren't spelled out in English--it's tough to know how to ask for directions when you don't even know where it is you're trying to get to [and Google maps gave us all street names in the Thai alphabet].
Still, after not too long, I'd figured out how to read some of the Thai signs by context, and we made it to Skytrain, which was extremely navigable and thankfully devoid of tourist-predating scammers and taxi drivers.
Once off BTS, we wandered down a main road and were pulled into several detours by our noses over the next couple hours. Down extremely narrow alleys would be large markets full of street vendors that were completely hidden from the main roads.
The marketplaces were bustling, sometimes with seemingly hundreds of people, yet we were the only non-locals at any of them. We took this as a good sign. Several of the stalls had pre-established local prices and we'd watch what they charged the locals; no one tried to overcharge or up-sell us. In fact, for the first time since we'd been outdoors in Bangkok, the locals treated us with courteous indifference; no one batted an eye or tried to coax us into buying anything.
I grew up on traditional Asian food a la my mother and grandma, and been to several Thai restaurants in America--but the majority of food being sold on the street was completely new to us. We couldn't even discern most of the ingredients.
Case in point: the first thing we ate. I can best describe it as "deep-fried seaweed-and-or-shallot jello cubes" that we supposed might have been derived from beans. Or dough. Or something else.
Throughout the day, we also ate some sweet taro-blob-fried-corn things; a rice dish with egg yolks, peanuts, mushrooms, taro paste, and some yellow legume-like things; sweet-and-savory corn-taro-and-maybe-some-type-of-squash blobs; lotus root juice [YES]; spicy fish balls; some amazing "milk pudding" with kidney beans, pudding jelly, and some firm jelloid cubes with one of the most interesting textures of anything I've eaten; an ice cream slushie thing with coconut milk, peanuts, rice, and some gooey white things that I thought at first might have been some kind of fruit, but weren't; squid kebabs; real pad thai [which I didn't even recognize as pad thai at first]...
Summarily, we ate a lot. With everything costing between 10-40 baht [$0.30-1.20], another street stall every two feet, and an incentive to support smaller businesses off the main tourist drag, the only limiting factor was the capacities of our stomachs.
Also, fun fact: Red Bull originally came from Thailand [with a similar logo]. However, the Thai version is sort of syrupy [less fruity], uncarbonated, and even more caffeinated.
Of course, we got one of those [for about $0.20].
Eventually we reached Lumphini. It wasn't what I expected--full of streams and bridges and grass and a smattering of pretty old traditional buildings and monuments, but with roads still cutting through it every now and again as a constant reminder that, yes, we're still in the city. I sort of liked this frenetic aspect, personally--it felt more juxtaposed to be hanging out by a pretty pond while, right over yonder, chaos was still ensuing without me. Several people in casual business attire were taking naps under trees and in the grass.
Throughout the day, we opted not to take photos ["What would we photograph? I could take a picture of just about anything we've seen today; I'd rather just live it than attempt to capture it all."] but I caved when I saw a huge monitor lizard eating some large crow-or-other-corvid like it was a large insect [unfortunately, none of these turned out--I couldn't get close enough].
Alex, having seen several monitor lizards himself in Australia, laughed at me. "Those things are everywhere--they're like squirrels." Squirrels, except the size of dogs and with necrosis-inducing venom. Over the next hour, we probably saw over ten of them--and minus one small boy who was throwing a stick at one, the locals seemed indifferent to their presence.
Still, even he was impressed when we saw one about six feet long that appeared to be morbidly obese. We guessed it probably weighed about ninety pounds at the very least.
Along with the lizards, we saw several bird species and plants we'd never seen before. Several beautiful stray dogs ran around ["Well, when they're surviving on their own, the useless traits get weeded out pretty quick--you're not going to see stray pugs, or purebreds at all, really."] and the ponds were full of nearly human-sized catfish that were mostly hidden under the murky surface. I coined several dumb new portmanteaus [dalmigeon, bushlephants, hearchways...].
We also came across several protester campgrounds--tent villages blasting heated speeches in Thai. I resisted the urge to go ask them questions.
At one point, I thought I saw a long blue-gray tongue flicker out of one of the holes in a manhole cover. Alex laughed at me and said I was being ridiculous.
Five minutes later, we saw a giant monitor lizard--maybe a five-footer--squeeze clumsily out of a crack in the street that looked like it was about two inches wide. [So there!]
Ack, it's almost check-out time, so I'll skip a few things and wrap this up.
Platinum Fashion Mall
When giving us recommendations, Andrew had insisted that we visit the Platinum Fashion Mall. Neither of us are much for shopping--or clothes, period--but he insisted.
That mall was easily one of the most surreal [and claustraphobia-inducing] places I'd been in my life--an endless labyrinth with aisles four feet wide, with walls made up of tiny shopfronts. We took an escalator from the street to get inside its fifth floor, and then got lost several times, I finally reached a directory and discovered that there were four floors of just women's clothing. It seemed impossible. The place was so big and dizzying--and had so much of every conceivable garment in the Universe--that I figured it'd be completely impossible to ever actually find any particular item you might go looking for. A good percentage of the patrons were dolled-up ladyboys, another sizeable portion were foreigners. Also, shit was cheap--having packed virtually no clothes for my trip [just the T-shirt and pants I'd worn on the plane], I bought a couple things, all priced between $1-6 after haggling [and $6 was for items arguably crossing into "high-end" territory].
It felt like a really weird dream, and I'd highly recommend it to anyone who doesn't become exceedingly anxious in small crowded spaces.
Southern Style Thai Massage
So, I'm trained in Thai massage myself, having completed programs in both Northern Style and Nerve Touch Style in the states.
I'd asked my instructor about Southern Style, and she'd said, "It's similar to Northern Style, but a lot faster and harder and more aggressive--but not necessarily beneficial or therapeutic, like Nerve Touch. Pretty much any time you hear someone had a scary experience getting Thai massage, or an injury, it was a Southern Style massage."
"So...you're saying Southern Style is basically a shitty version of the same thing, rather than a style on its own?"
"Well, I suppose so."
I thought she was just biased. So we got massages in Bangkok.
I enjoyed it--it's tough for me to not enjoy a massage--but it was still easily the worst Thai massage I'd ever gotten. The therapist's sense of safe alignment was egregious, and a few times I was scared she was legitimately going to mis-align my back or tweak my knees.
Still...an hour-long massage for $5?...I really can't complain. However, I'll probably wait until we head up closer to Chiang Mai before trying another one.
Phew. I woke up this morning [first legitimate night of sleep in
days]. Wanted to clear my head this morning by writing all this shit
down while I've got a free computer at my disposal. Also, I'm nostalgic, but forget everything if I don't eke out enough discipline to transcribe it.
There was a lot of other cool stuff that I don't have time to go into--on our walk back to the hotel, in addition to the night markets, we passed by several old VW hippie vans along the street that had been converted to portable bars, with built-in counters and sidewalk bar stools, pimped out with squillions of lasers and blinky Christmas lights and blasting electronic music. They looked like something out of Burning Man.
But it's time to get off my ass and go--we're going to stay with an American ex-pat we found via Couchsurfing.
Next after that...Alex wants to head south to the islands and then Malaysia, and I want to go north and on to Indochina. So we're going to flip a coin.