Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Tony Tries Thailand’s Thrilling Treats, Part 2: More Tours

I got up early again for another full day tour, this time I went to the River Kwai, where the horrible war crimes took place in World War 2 when the Japanese had POWs build a bridge and thousands died. The cemetery and bridge were really interesting to see, but the museum could have used a bit more funding, as it seemed a bit weathered. In all it was interesting and we even rode the old train after it crossed the bridge to where we had lunch.

The next part was for me to ride an Elephant. I got on the back and the rockin’ beast took us (the driver and I) around on a little path which included a dip in the lake. It sure wasn’t a smooth ride, but it was relaxing, and the guy made me a crown made of leaves and flowers to wear. I liked when the elephant kept straying off course much to the irritation of the dude telling it where to go. Usually it was to grab some food, or to start wrecking havoc on a tree with tasty vines growing up it. Elephants are pretty cool! :) I remembered seeing them when I was young and all I really remembered was just how bad they smelt. These ones didn’t smell anymore than cows back on the farm. Oh and the driver tried to sell me some jewelry made from elephant tail hair; it was really thick and strong, but just too weird for paying money for.

After this, I got on a bamboo raft and we lazily floated down a river surrounded by beautiful trees and other goodies. It was so peaceful and relaxing, even if the seat was a bit uncomfortable given the materials of which it was composed. I love being out on the water. Since I rode the raft though, I had to pay extra if I wanted to see a tiger den after. I was exhausted from the late night and early morning, so I took a pass while others on the tour went into the mini zoo to see tigers.

I hung out in a cafeteria and snuck in a nap. On the TV they showed a new prime minister being appointed, or whatever was going on with all the political ruckus that scared off how many tourists, and will make millions of Thai people suffer this year from the lost tourism money alone. The tour guide came over and apologized to me that this was going on, and said about how one million people will lose their job this year because of that mess. I heard it from numerous people before I came over “don’t go, you’ll die!” but maybe that’s a risk you run when you travel?

Either way, the news isn’t much more than a fear-mongering machine to keep you locking your doors, suspecting everyone, and spending your money inside the country instead of other places or else ‘the terrorists win’ or some crap (most news anyways). I’m so glad I’m out of that box; before I left Canada, the news got me paranoid enough to think the USA was close to invading us. Traveling helps open your mind I’ve learnt. The whole time I was in Thailand there wasn’t one thing to be scared of; the people were so friendly.

When the tour was over we headed back to town. One thing that bugged me about Bangkok was the traffic. After some tours you were stuck for over an hour in jams. Apparently there is a subway which I unfortunately didn’t get to use, but I did use the sky train, which is more like a monorail which lacks the flexibility you’d get somewhere like Tokyo, where you can transfer and go all over as opposed to up and down the city. Forget the buses, they were caught up in the traffic too. Anyways, I got back, ate and had a cheap long massage at the hotel again and went to sleep.

The third day in on the 21st, I went on another daylong tour to the old capital, Ayutthaya. All of these tours were about 1-2 hours from the city, were cheap and fairly well organized. Plus you get to meet lots of cool people in the vans that are also traveling around. It’s hard for me to talk about while trying to keep it interesting, as you have various old buildings that old kings built and what they used them for, or the tree that Buddha came to and found enlightenment under; things of that nature. It was a gorgeous place obviously with lots of history; so don’t let me rob it of that.

We later saw a large Buddha statue with a gold head, I’m sure it holds a record for something, but after seeing a million statues and temples you start to lose interest in the repetitiveness. Either way, this thing was massive, and people would pay for these gold colored robes. The robes would be opened over the crowd, and then sucked up towards the statues, perhaps as a way of taking their wishes to heaven? I just know later they would fold the robes back up and sell them again to the next people.

This was much like the food offerings at a different temple I saw. Only monks could enter the sacred room itself to bring the food offering someone bought, and not too long after someone would take the offering around back to the front to re-sell to the next person. I guess it kinda makes sense to not be wasteful, but they didn’t have to charge so much if that’s all they were doing (about $7 each for the food) Since the new year was approaching these places were hopping.

While you’re driving around Thailand though, there are pictures of the monarchy everywhere; love and respect for the king is intense. We then went to an island where 7 very old and diverse temples presided. Our tour would only visit 3 of them, but it was still an amazing experience. One thing that stood out: many of the Buddha statues had their heads chopped off. It was quite unsightly, but I can’t imagine the jerks that paid money to have it done. It seems to be a common theme visiting these old ruins anywhere in the world. They talk about how happy and prosperous that place once was, until some jerks got uppity, invaded, stole everything of value and burnt the rest. The walls were scorched from the fires. Shameful the things we do to each other.

It was really cool climbing the one place though; the steps were so weathered from the centuries and millions of people that ascended them. I guess what you do is you take a small piece of gold and stick it to a Buddha statue, this made them colorful and cool looking, you could tell which places saw more love from its colour.

This tour ended a bit early so I had time to prepare to hit the town! I went to the travel desk to talk with my new friend about things to do that night. As a joke, I said “where can I go to find a girlfriend tonight?” meaning a popular nightclub or something. Her response was to write a price (less than $50) on a piece of paper and asking what time I wanted her to come over. Again, it’s shocking how open this world of “workers” is, but it also explained the many couples you saw walking around that didn’t quite look right. Half the time, it was a grey haired dude with a big stomach walking around with a pretty girl in her 20’s. Half of those girls I then realized didn’t look too happy for a reason: they were there to be seen and not heard; they were “working”. It turns the stomach really, and I’ve heard much worse stories of the kinds of “workers” these tourists were hiring.

Anyways, I found out about a cool night market area that I should check out. It was a huge open-air area with tables set up and a stage for entertainment. It looked like some contest for “Miss New Year Bangkok” or something. After some food and a drink or two, I headed to the nightclub that was recommended, but unfortunately it was Sunday night. The club didn’t really get people inside of it for the first couple hours, and there was no real dancing all night. At least there was a live show by multiple talents on stage to make it worth the steep cover charge. I think I was in bed by midnight.

The next day was my first time to really sleep in and be lazy; I believe I stumbled out a little bit for some food. Later that afternoon I went on a tour of the main river running through Bangkok. It was cool seeing things from the river like huge temples and the grand palace, but I was more interested in the residential area. People would walk down their steps on the porch and start bathing in the river, nearby houses worth millions of dollars from the wood they were built from alone.

When I got back, I got talking with a tour booker named Lily. She’s a sweet old lady who would be easy to mistake for your mom or grandma. At first we talked to each other in Japanese for a while in our horrible, broken foreigner way, then later we went to a movie Thai movie at the theater. Thailand takes their movies very seriously as this was the swankiest theater I’ve ever been in; and it was a ‘lower class’ theater too! The upper class stuff was more expensive, but was set up like a nightclub; with couches and mini tables and the like. Anyways, we ended up seeing a movie called “ong bak 2”. The story was a bit weird, but the action was amazing! Almost non-stop impressive martial arts by this dude who is like Thailand’s Jackie Chan. I want to see the first movie now.

We really just talked a lot and I learnt a lot about Thailand and its culture. I love speaking with locals for exactly this reason; they are super friendly in Thailand too. We later went for Karaoke together and the next day (Dec 23rd) she gave me a private, free tour of the Grand Palace. This place was massive and had lots to see, but I won’t go on too much about the different Buddha statues, houses of resident and other things inside, other than it’s rather magnificent and needs to be seen. Also they say Buddha’s ashes are kept here, and Lily showed me how people pray and stuff.

Once that was over, my friend, Richard, arrived at the airport from Japan. Before I left Japan we agreed to meet up and travel together; he’s been over at my place a couple times now to watch movies. Anyways, with Lily’s help, we went to an arena and saw some Thai fighting.

The price was a bit steep, but these guys were pretty intense. Matches started with a spiritual dance by both fighters, but after the bell rang huge kicks and knees and punches were flying around; these young guys were built for punishment. It was entertaining, and the audience was really into it. Guys were placing bets in the back, and they made noises when blows landed. The intensity got your blood rushing. After the show, we even got a picture with one of the fighters. You could tell he gets that a lot though, as he hardly posed and walked away after, ignoring our “thanks”. Ah well. It was explained how this was part of their training in keeping a solid mind.

It wasn’t a late night though, as I know how Richard must have felt after how many hours of traveling, and we were getting up early the next day to hop on a bus for Koh Chang, Thailand’s 2nd biggest island close to Cambodia. We wanted to spend Christmas on the beach.

"Change. It has the power to uplift, to heal, to stimulate, surprise, open new doors, bring fresh experience and create excitement in life. Certainly it is worth the risk." -Leo Buscaglia


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