Thursday, February 11, 2010

bangkok - by day

Many people have scared me off Bangkok, saying it was dirty, ugly, messy, full of crime, full of prostitution, nothing to do (unless of course you are a fárang visiting the city for what the prostitutes can offer). However Bali was calling! I needed to reapply for an Indonesian visa and as I was already in Thailand it made sense to apply there instead of going to Singapore (in case anyone needs that bit of information; if one applies to a social Indonesian visa through the Bali Mode agency in Singapore, it is issued within a day, costs 150$ and no paperwork is needed from the applicant. Applying from anywhere else in the world directly at the consulate for a social visa usually costs about 45$, takes 3 to 5 days and occasionally requires a little more hassle and documentation depending on the mood of the consulate staff that day). I wanted to apply myself instead of paying to an agency, so I planned a super-short stop in the city, squeezed between Chiang Mai and another Vipassana course in Kancanaburi.

The “first time in a new city” observations started kicking in when I was already in the bus terminal. It was relatively clean, quiet and organized.
As the taxi was heading towards my hostel, I expected to see extremes; for a city that stretches about 20 kilometers in each direction from the center and hosting some 7 million people, Bangkok appeared quite relaxed to me. My little adventure with the taxi driver confirmed that too.

I spent the first night in my hostel; it was my first real hostel experience where I would be sharing a bunk-bed dorm with 9 other travelers. The massage school in Chiang Mai was also dorm but it was free of charge and all of us were there for the same purpose, spending almost every awake moment together. There were only 6 of us that night and the number kept decreasing with each passing night.

Since I had very limited time in Bangkok, I decided to be touristy for a change. I went to visit the Bangkok Royal Palace and the temple on the grounds. I like the cities where there's efficient public transportation. Especially any type of metro cheers me up, be it underground or sky train. It makes me feel that I'm tuned to the fast pace of a real metropolitan. I like taking my time, walking everywhere in the uneven pavements of Ubud as much as I like switching between 8 different lines of metro in Tokyo to get to where I want to go. It's good that I don't have to choose; I don't have to be totally urban or totally rustic; both appeal to me in different periods of my life. And now I needed that city pace. I got the early symptoms in Chiang Mai, where I was visiting the huge supermarket behind the school everyday and gazing at the shelves with some longing of “choice”. Bangkok has it all from tuk-tuks to sky train; now that's what I would call an efficient transportation network.

The entire city of Bangkok appeared to be one big open-air market. The city constantly pulsed in street stalls, plastic stools gathered around a mobile satay station and night markets. Especially the people running those mobile eateries are jaw-droppingly skilled in chopping, cooking, serving in what's only centimeter squares of space. So efficient, so space-saving, so chaotic and so fun... In between palaces and temples, I spent my entire day eating fruits, drinking coconut water or orange juice from those stalls. Bangkok made me feel thankful that I am a vegan and there's a (relatively) limited variety of food that I can have in the streets. Otherwise, I would have easily gained a ton of weight even in two days.

The touristy experience was fun and made me photorgasmic after a long long time. Temples, street markets, riverside stalls, skyscrapers and whatnot. There's so much to shoot and one cannot possibly screw up. The repetitive patterns, the angles, the lines, the contrasts are just amazing... All photos turn out to be good in this city. Moreover people don't seem to be camera-phobic. I point my camera and smile, they smile back and let me shoot whatever I want to shoot. I was out on the street over 14 hours just absorbing and trying to digitally record what this city has to offer. 

One of the highlights of my first day in Bangkok was dinner. My last visit to Dubai was in late September and I haven't had any Middle Eastern food since then. Not that I'm complaining, I was ecstatic with all the Som Tam in Chiang Mai or the organic salads in Ubud. Still Tabbouleh held and will always hold a special place in my heart. I found the “Little Arabia” of the city, which lies around Soi 5 of Sukhumvit Road. There, the scene quickly changes from Asian to Arabian. Hotels with Arabic signs, Egyptian restaurants, shisha places, Arabic couples (of course the man in shorts and t-shirt, the wife in full abaya), oud shops, … After checking the menus of a few restaurants I decided on one and ordered tabbouleh and hummus. I can't say that I particularly missed the whole Arabic scene, but the tabbouleh tasted yummy, even though it was nowhere near the original.

The second day, I started out even earlier and visited the Wat Pho temple. 46 meters of golden Buddha was literally lying in front of me. As much as I wanted to continue walking around and shooting photos, I had errands to run for the next steps of my trip. Before entering my first Vipassana, I left some loose ends which kept me worrying every now and then so I had to make sure that the following 20 days are arranged and confirmed before I step into the ashram again. That meant more city center, more urban resources and more shopping malls, ... 

2 days in Bangkok was as fast as the blink of an eye and felt more like a trailer than the movie itself. (This comes from a person who spent 3 almost months in Bali and yet didn't manage to see half of the island!) I was out on the street as long as my feet carried me, and slept just 4-5 hours a day, but still the time didn't feel enough for anything. I loved the city but my skin hated it. Already on day two I had terrible acne from the pollution. With all the exhaust fumes, neither were my lungs happy. Bangkok freshened me up and reminded me of the fast-pace life beyond the yoga mat. 

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