Thai Adventures Pt. 4 – Majesty

Another picture-heavy post.

Because I was a tourist.

And while this is not a travel blog, what I’ve seen is relevant to fantasy writing.

Seriously, though. As an American, the concept and of royalty is something distinctly foreign. I only know kings, queens, princesses and princes from story and history books, most of which are based on people and places “Over there.” You know, as in across a large body of water.

While a quick, respectful bow is nothing strange to me, I’ve found that as a former Jew, I find it difficult to kneel before anyone. My ancestors kind of had a problem with that since the Ancient Egyptians.

You are welcome, world.

But experiencing majesty, like the presence of real royalty, is something I never before experienced. I imagine very few people the world over in fact have.

While I won’t go into huge detail about King Abdulyadej, I will mention that he’s got quite a collection of interesting trivia to his name. Born in America (Cambridge, Massachusetts, which I suppose makes him technically an American). Involved in a rather unfortunate incident where his older brother (heir to the throne) was killed in an accident involving guns, when the two were alone. The longest-currently-living monarch (born in 19827) – he’s been ruling since 1950.

As a foreigner, and a brief traveler, I can’t be expected to understand to full breadth and scope of his influence from a reading Wikipedia. I defer to others when it comes to this area of expertise, but it’s my understanding that the king is rather well-received by most Thai folk.

The legacy of the monarchy, however, might be a bit different.

In any case, I, like most people, did not get to see the guy himself, but what I did do, like many travelers, was visit one of Bangkok’s major tourist sites: the Grand Palace.

A dress code is enforced at the gates. This would not be the first time I came upon one of these signs…

…nor was it the first time I did so unprepared. After exchanging my shorts for a pair of billowing trousers, I entered upon the palace grounds, and decided nearly everything I saw was nothing short of majestic.

I recalled visiting palaces in South Korea, some restored after Japanese occupation blasted much of that country’s cultural heritage to ruins, and there was a certain modernity to their construction. Much of what I saw there did not compare to the palace in Bangkok, for no living monarchs live in Korea (and haven’t since 1910 when the Japanese took over), and as such the palaces served as little more than tourist destinations or cultural heritage memorials.

For that, they served their purpose well. The modernity of their restoration/reconstruction, however, could be seen in other places as well; something I’ve seen in a variety of places throughout Asia – the whole “quickly and inexpensively built in order to maximize profits” thing.

While walking across courtyards or between buildings at the Grand Palace in Bangkok, I found myself continually reminding myself that no, what I looked at was not some ancient representation of monarchy. “This is how we think they lived.” What I saw was not hastily or cheaply built structures as might be found around the world when trying to lure tourists.

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I’m not an architect, and while I can appreciate the so-called “exoticness” of foreign architecture, I have no doubt that the finer details of such a craft are lost upon me. I was, however, able to awe-stricken at some of constructs I walked around, under, or through.

I was able to peer inside one of these smaller doors on the ground level, and beheld a massive collection of ancient arms from around the world.

I was able to peer inside one of these smaller doors on the ground level, and beheld a massive collection of ancient arms from around the world.

When we read about palaces in fiction, often enough we have our own definitions of what it means to be part of a royal family. We expect servants, lavish cushions, food on a whim, and personal bodyguards.

Authors don’t usually get into detail about the architecture, in my experience. Perhaps we can learn from this.

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The entrance to what was apparently a sort of royal temple. Pictures inside were forbidden. The walls were gilded with gold paint and meticulously placed reflective shards of glass and stones.

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I couldn’t understand half of what I was looking at, but I knew it was important.

 

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As I’ve said, royalty is something I’ve always had a little difficulty wrapping my head around, both on the simple grounds of being a secular American, and even on a philosophical level. Kingliness, royalty, regality, whatever you may choose to describe it, exists on the concept of divine right, that is, the gods chose that person (or family) to rule, so therefore it must be so.

It takes a significant amount of brainwashing, I think, to really get the idea into the heads of anyone that someone deserves to rule simply because everyone else says so.

It’s something I encounter often when reading and writing fantasy. The simple question of:

“Why would anyone follow that person?”

Fear helps, I’m sure.

But its things like this that make me question how monarchies manage to stay stable, and how dynasties manage to keep from crumbling. Truly, the idea of divine right is a strange thing.

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Thai Adventures Pt. 3: Bangkok

After my experiences in Phnom Penh and my adventures in Siem Reap, a crossroads lay before me.

My original party of five had dispersed. One pair returned to Sai Gon, where they would spend their remaining days in Southeast Asia during Tet Holiday, then head back home to New York.

The other pair were headed north, to Laos. I had no particular inclination to go in either direction.

Thus the opportunity arose where I instead head east – to Thailand.

This would not be my first time venturing into the Land of the Thais, as some months ago I paid a visit to Chiang Mai to meet an old friend. This time in Thailand, my time would be spent in the mad city of Bangkok, a place legendary for things those of us in the West use as the fodder for juvenile puns and crude jokes.

I can assure you that much of what you have heard about Bangkok is probably true.

I spent less than a week there, with the intentions of meeting another (different) friend of mine, and as it turned out I got there early, and had about two full days of free time to myself before their arrival. This left me with ample opportunities to sample the cuisine at my own pace.

Cranston McHattery looking stylish as he stole my sunglasses again.

And yet, while hoping to enjoy Pad Thai the way I keep expecting it to taste, I was once again disappointed.

To understand Bangkok – I don’t claim to except superficially, as a tourist – one must first take the phrase “East Meets West” and take it a step further. Thailand is a fascinating blend of Indian and (South)East-Asian influences. There were many empires (of which Angkor Wat stands as a remnant) to attest to the rich history of this part of the world. Yet, when we say East Meets West, we often think of the Crusades in the poorly named “Middle East,” or perhaps those wondrous melting-pot cities like Jerusalem and Istanbul.

Though I recently read the opinion of a rather prolific traveler in regards to how culturally diverse the Dubai airport is.

Bangkok is no exception, and the phrase “East Greets West” feels more apropos. Thailand is a highly developed country and it shows in the capital city. I won’t spend time here contrasting to Viet Nam, or Thailand’s little brother Cambodia, as the socio-political intricacies require a degree of precision in history such as I am – currently – incapable of providing in a clear and unbiased context.

Suffice it to say that Thailand opened its gates to the outside world long ago, and has prospered as a direct result. While still retaining aspects of its cultural identity, I could not help but see incredible levels of globalization in Bangkok.

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Modernity with a dash of camouflage.

It is an interesting discussion about how the more “developed” a country becomes, the more “Western” it appears to be, from the fashion trends, to infrastructure, and sometimes even aspects of the government (more on Thai administration later).

But it is profoundly Western-centric of me to assume anything along the lines of other cultures wearing skinny jeans or dying their hair as an attempt to “look more Western.” This is a debate the likes of which I’ve participated many times in the past, and have since come to adopt the opinion that it isn’t “Western” style (whatever that is) that we see around the world, but more of a global style, usually accompanied by individual cultural flavors.

Thailand has no shortage of flavors of its own, and I saw this first hand in Bangkok. The people — while predominantly (assumedly) Thai, are extremely diverse among themselves. This city is, during my limited globe-trotting experience, the very definition of cosmopolitan and metropolitan.

In fact it was very reminiscent of Manhattan. Which is probably why I’ve since decided I don’t like it there.

Cosmopolitan and metropolitan are noble words to have ascribed to a city, but not my kind of city. Although while I compare Bangkok to Manhattan, I believe that Bangkok is significantly more globally-minded. This could be seen in, of all things, some of its most prestigious landmarks: the shopping malls.

This is probably the only shopping mall - styled after an oldschool market - that I actually didn't mind checking out.

This is probably the only shopping mall – styled after an oldschool market – that I actually didn’t mind checking out.

The people of Bangkok – Bangkokese? Bangkokers? Bangkokians? – appear to be largely more concerned with keeping up with fashion trends and expressing their individuality. I was, of course, spending a lot of time in the direct city center where shopping malls stood as legit tourist attractions as much as actual shopping centers, and the mighty Terminal 21 – a mall designed to resemble an airport, which each floor having a different theme based on various interesting cities around the world. Istanbul, Tokyo, San Francisco and Paris come to mind.

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Not to mention it was the Lunar New Year, so they had a bit of a China theme happening.

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No shopping mall is complete without a giant golden dragon.

Thailand, with the evident desire for self-expression and individuality in its inhabitants, makes for what I can only assume is a very open-minded community. I saw just as many Thais walking around with dyed hair as those who kept their hair black. There were piercings, tattoos, and quite a bit of androgyny about in terms of dress.

These things did not come as a shock by any means, but they did stand in stark contrast to my experiences in Viet Nam where, much like the East-Asian neighbors of Japan, China, and S. Korea, conformity is, expectedly, the norm.

And then, of course, there are the ladyboys.

Soi Cowboy, practically around the corner from my hostel and a stone's throw away from Terminal 21 shopping mall.

Soi Cowboy, practically around the corner from my hostel and a stone’s throw away from Terminal 21 shopping mall.

Even as a backpacker tourist, I managed to avoid the famous Khaosan Road, though I now wish I had passed through it at least once. I feel as though I haven’t missed all that much though; the more seasoned travelers, backpackers and expats alike, tend to avoid these tourist havens.

Oh right, the ladyboys.

They are exactly what it sounds like, and exactly what you’ve heard about.

And no, sorry, no pictures. You can look that up on your own.

Nothing compares to walking down Soi Cowboy, that mad carnival of a street, and being hawked by gaggles of sexily-dressed waitresses and gangs ladyboy prostitutes.

I learned after having stayed there for a night that the area in which my hostel was apparently smack-dab in the middle of what I can only respectfully call a huge prostitute zone.

And after a few days of sight-seeing, I found myself starting to look at all this and regard it as normal.

It is true that prostitution is a viable career path in Thailand, and as such it’s kind of a big reason for tourism. Furthermore, I expect it’s difficult for people to explain to their friends and family that no, in fact, that isn’t the reason they’re visiting Thailand.

At any rate, it was a fascinating thing to see the fusion of traditional spirituality and fast-paced commercialism. What I can only describe as open-mindedness towards self-expression and sexuality was apparent wherever I turned. Women dressed like men, men dressed like women, and loads of people dressed like neither – who also happened to be equipped with similarly androgynous faces, leaving my subconscious labeling system as “person” rather than man or woman.

I suspect the LGBT community is big there.

And there are, of course, many other wonderful things to be found here.

Mango pudding, mango ice sherbet, mango smoothie, and, of course, a sliced ripe mango.

Mango pudding, mango ice sherbet, mango smoothie, and, of course, a sliced ripe mango.

The gods are not so cruel.

Thai Adventures (Pt. 1)

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One of the best parts about being in South-East Asia is its proximity of varying countries nearby.

After spending about three months in Viet Nam, nearly to the full extent of my first 90-day tourist visa, it came close to the time where I would have to renew it.

Some of you may recall my adventures alongside the Chatty Swede, during my first few days in Sài Gòn. She and I had kept in sporadic touch since then, as her plan took her out of Sài Gòn and north, then back west through Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. There in Thailand, the Chatty Swede remained for upwards of two months, volunteering at an elephant camp and a tiger kingdom. The names of both places are most apropos.

This would more or less be my last opportunity to see my Swedish sister before she embarked to continue her backpacking. Not only would I probably never again get such a chance to see the tigers she worked with, but after being away I would arrange to have a fresh, new, 90-day visa when I returned to Sài Gòn.  Thus, we devised a plan for me to visit her there, leaving my home for about five days.

Arranging everything turned out to be mostly painless. Had I booked my flights earlier, I might have saved about twenty or thirty dollars, but as it turns out a two-way flight between Sài Gòn and Bangkok ran me only a little over a hundred. So, leaving my motorbike in the safety of my home behind locked gates, I took two buses out of my home area of District 9 to the airport, after which I managed to catch my flight without incident.

I remember glancing at my phone, having flown out of reach of 3G range, and flipped on the GPS to see where we were. I happily had a window seat, and looking outside, I saw rolling forested mountains that in truth did not look all that different from not-s0-far from Sài Gòn. Once my phone triangulated my position – oh yes, they always say on those flights that use of phones is forbidden, but come on, whether the things are turned on or not, they would be interfering with the flight signals regardless – I saw that my plane was about half-way between Sài Gòn and Bangkok, making the immense lake (Tonle Sap Lake, for those of you who care) I saw and the forests below to be smack-dab in the middle of Cambodia.

So unaccustomed to short flights was I that the hour it took to reach Bangkok felt about as easy as the jaunt between my old home and family I had in New Jersey. By car.

At the Bangkok airport, my first order of business was acquiring a SIM card for my phone, which proved to be easier than ever expected. There I saw booths offering 7-Day Traveler’s SIMs, with unlimited internet access and 3G ability, for less than ten dollars. Not bad, I figured, though throughout my travels in Thailand the majority of my connectivity was pretty bad. I know not whether it was the 3G available, or perhaps my phone, but only WiFi at cafes seemed to be reliable enough to send and recieve any messages. I would not hear from the Chatty Swede until later.

Thai folks really know how to make their cities look like a bag of candy.

Getting to the Hualamphong Train Station turned out to be easy. I hopped into one of the bright yellow-and-green taxi cabs (though vivid fuschia ones seemed just as inviting), and for 500 baht I was taken across the city. In retrospect, of course I know I could have gotten there for cheaper, but I knew not the train schedules and every bit of advice I had ever read or received about Thailand urged to book as early as possible. I felt I had not time to fumble with public transit.

And so I justify over-spending on a taxi-fair in a foreign city. Not for the first time. 500 baht comes to about $15.00 USD so I’ll live, but I would later find out how cheap and easy it is to simply use the subway.

At least I got to meet the taxi driver, a gentleman whose named sounded like “Soap Sock.”

We got to the train station in good time. Arranging my two-way from Bangkok to Chiang Mai turned out to be just as easy, and any anxieties I might have had about getting a ticket (as one cannot book them online in advance) disappeared. In fact I had about an hour before my train departed, so I took a moment to peruse the Hualamphong food court.

Vegetarian food is delightfully easy to find in Thailand.

And, much in the manner I encountered in South Korea, most street signs (or otherwise important ones) are accompanied by English translations. Bangkok is a noticeably more developed city in a noticeably more developed country than Việt Nam- evidenced by their public train systems, number of cars (as opposed to motorbikes), and of course international population. It really shows in its ease of accessibility to foreigners, and many Thai people (especially in Bangkok) speak English; all of whom I’d met wore big smiles and were happy to help. I know I looked the part of the typical tourist, walking around, taking pictures, pausing at every sign and checking my notes or phone to ascertain where I was.

But aside from the sudden lack of motorbikes, among the first things I noticed in Bangkok, both on the way to the train station and even on the train itself, was the architecture. While much of Bangkok itself is indeed “modernized” office buildings and the like, and the view from the highway in particular passes over large swathes of shanty-towns as I’m familiar with seeing in Sài Gòn, there are temples everywhere. I also happen to find the Thai script simply beautiful to look upon, as unintelligible as it is to me.

Having boarded the train, the first ‘sleep train’ I had ever attempted, I found my assigned seat to be near a trio of delightful old Thai ladies. Only one of them spoke English, and interactions were fairly limited as I found myself mostly interested in the what zoomed passed the train out the window, but I learned they were in their sixties, that they were headed to Chiang Rai (further north of Chiang Mai, the city to which I was to debark) and that they – or at least the one who spoke the most – was also vegetarian. They were all quick to laugh, and quite chatty; while the entirety of the car had pulled its curtains shut and settled to attempt to sleep through the night, the three old Thai women went on in their incomprehensible language. I happened to not mind, and sleeping on the train took some getting used to.

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A peek out of my bunk.

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Besides, the Thai Trio fed me this, too. I have no idea what it is, but it tasted like a mooncake.

The next day, I awoke two hours before the train would stop in Chiang Mai, and passed the time talking to a friendly Thai gentleman who spent nine months of the year in Florida. Our arrival in Chiang Mai put me in the city at around nine in the morning, and I would have about five hours of free time to explore the city until I would at last meet my chatty Swedish sister. Looking at the maps (as well as the one on my phone), the way to the Old City from the Chiang Mai train station was, graciously, a perfectly straight line.

Getting there was more a matter of avoiding the insistent tuk-tuk drivers, whose behavior I found virtually identical to the Vietnamese xe ôm drivers.

I actually didn’t take any pictures of tuk-tuks, so here’s an awesome rendering by artist frattozero over at DeviantArt.

In those five hours of wandering about Chiang Mai, keeping myself within the confines of the Old City – which was more than big enough to occupy one such as myself – I found dozens of temples.Wats, they call them.

SAM_0994Every wat, and most other remotely traditional-looking buildings that I saw, seemed to always have symmetrically placed statues of naga, which at first I confused to be dragons, but a local corrected me when I asked.

How about another shot of one these beauties?

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Naga have been popularized in fantasy as snake people, but in Buddhist folklore they seem to often play the part of a guardian, but they’re not always benevolent.

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I found myself often looking around to make sure whether or not I was trespassing, as I did, in fact, accidentally let myself into a monk’s private study while exploring. Just once. Everything after that, like this place, was completely open to the public.

I visited temples, dropped a few baht coins in a donation box at one of them, and eventually needed something to eat. Remembering that I had jokingly insisted the real reason I had chosen to come to South East Asia was to in fact try eating authentic pad thai, I set out to find some of the real stuff.

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Vegetarian pad thai. Tasted about the same as restaurants I knew back in New York; sweet with only a hint of spice. I suspect it is because I had it in a touristy area.

The next time I find myself in Thailand, probably to see the White Temples of Chiang Rai, I will make it my mission to seek out real, authentic pad thai.

I spent the remainder of my time waiting visiting various touristy things; with more than enough temples already perused, I found two museums (where I learned a wealth of information about the ancient Kingdom of Lanna, of which Chiang Mai was the capital in ancient days) and a cultural center, primarily centered a stone’s throw away from the Three King’s Square.

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Eventually, enough time passed that I decided I ought to head to where I would meet my Chatty Swedish Sister.

I got there without incident, riding in the back of a “bus taxi,” one of many such vehicles, that appeared to be little more than a pickup truck outfitted to hold a pile of people in the back.

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Nothing could have prepared me for the experience at the place where I’d meet my friend, the place she had spent the last few months working.

The Chiang Mai Tiger Kingdom.

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