A Fondness for Bangkok - This Time Tomorrow - CycleBlaze

February 23, 2017 to March 1, 2017

A Fondness for Bangkok

Packing, shopping, eating

3-2-17

Dear little friends,

For some reason we weren’t expecting to have trouble finding a room in Bangkok, so when we had to settle for the extremely underwhelming River House we kept thinking it really wouldn’t be that bad and yet it was. It was one of the worst rooms of the trip! Mosquitoes, no screens, more mosquitoes, heavy humid air not moving in our room. The owner was an elderly woman who was always moving quietly around, sweeping, answering the door, carrying sheets and towels up the steep stairs. She was nice enough but it makes me a little sad to see somebody that old working that hard. The wifi only worked in one corner of the garden, in the same place that the mosquitoes favored so hard choices had to be made, communicate with the outside world or die of mosquito poisoning.

Outside the dismal room.
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Inside the dismal room.
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Turning on the light did not make it less dismal.
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The solace of Bangkok is that it is Bangkok. The enormous blocks contain tiny alleyways and neighborhoods and small smelly canals and chickens and flowers and cafes and bodegas and coffee shops with their telltale neatly piled cans of condensed milk. Children play soccer after school and neighbors gather and chew the fat. We left the muggy guesthouse and walked quiet small streets to our favorite ma-and-pa coffee shop. We like their coffee, we like them, but we also seem to encounter oddly creepy foreigners there, people who have stayed far too long in Bangkok. Hungover, they gather there and trade quease-inducing stories of their previous evening’s activities which do not bear repeating here. It seems wise to study these folks with clear eyes knowing that when you stay in Bangkok too long without a meaningful reason this might be how you end up. You can be nostalgic for Bangkok all you want but having an end date seems pretty important.

Our favorite coffee lady.
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These are sold to taxi and bus drivers to ward off accidents and bless the occupants.
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I've gotta get out of this place.
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Nearly every block in Bangkok is huge, criss-crossed with tiny beckoning lanes and alleys.
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Life happens in the sois.
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We bought a papaya from her, in fact we think we bought papayas from her in 2015.
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A few chilis drying with klong water spray for extra flavor and bacteria.
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We had a few missions to accomplish in our languid last days in Asia. There was a list of things we had been looking for for certain people, things we did not buy earlier in the trip because we didn’t want to haul them around with us on the bikes, and things we had not been able to find in the first place. Specifically, knives. We had bought one or two knives from the Hmong knife makers in Chiang Khong already but they weren’t exactly what we were searching for, just second-stringers in case the best ones could not be found. So we took one day to sample nearly every sort of transportation option there is to be had in Bangkok, except for a taxi, on The Great Knife Quest. We were saving the taxi for the ride to the airport.

This is where wifi becomes so essential because we found online the bus schedule, the fares, the stops, the bus number that would take us to Chatujak Market on the GKQ. The bus was ridiculously cheap and took us through some strangely familiar streets that we realized we had ridden weeks before when we rode across Bangkok between the main bus stations.

Chatujak Market itself is monstrously insane and it seemed even worse this time. Hot, crowded, and a lot of useless dreck for sale. Somewhere in its spiderweb of lanes there is a “pet” section, with all sorts of unsavory illegally poached wildlife, we were careful to avoid that. Everywhere are piles of knock-off goods that look pretty awful. We sidled through one of the increasingly rare textile shops and listened to two older American hippies bargaining down the silks. Handwoven traditional silk production seems to have cratered in both quantity and quality, prices are really high, there are still some wonderful pieces to be had but our time in that market is over. We are grateful we collected what we did when we did, and still have inventory in our Etsy shop.

We have a code phrase for backpackers: "Elephant pants"
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The good news is that we almost immediately found some knives that were nearly what we wanted and we snatched them up, gingerly, of course, after much wrapping in newspaper. Another hour or so of aimless wandering in crowds and we were ready to ditch Chatujak so we hopped onto transport option #2, the convenient BTS SkyTrain, to Sukhumvit Road to find a shop that sells vintage Thai music, in a fancy and confusing mall. We found a few promising recordings and then it was onto a klong boat back toward Samsen, and walky feet to our new room at Riverline.

It wouldn't be Bangkok without a klong boat ride. This time I didn't almost fall in, so I'm an old hand at this klong boat thing.
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A wonderful thing in Thailand is the super cheap water dispensers everywhere. Bring your own bottle! In the background is a grocery truck bringing fresh vegetables to the neighborhood.
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We had several days to pace ourselves with chores and errands and sightseeing while not neglecting our napping and eating schedule. The flower market, walking past the palace, watching evening aerobics next to the river, these are pleasant asides to observing life go on in a huge city that seems like one tiny neighborhood after another.

The flower market is endless. Where all these marigolds are coming from is a mystery, it's like they have a fountain of marigolds in the floor.
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Alain AbbateWe noticed that a lot of Thais planted yellow marigold plots in a corner of their yards or fields in 2017. It's the late king's color and flower, so they must have known there would be a huge demand for yellow marigolds that year.
The new king was born on the same day of the week as the old king, so his color is also yellow, but he has some other flower. We didn't see too many of those growing.
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6 months ago
Andrea BrownTo Alain AbbateNotable is that in 2015 the color o' the year in Thailand was dark purple, the honorary color of the princess for her 60th birthday. Her portrait was everywhere.

Color coding of political loyalties has been pretty emphatic in the last decade. I am curious to know where the winds will blow in the next few years.
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6 months ago
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So, don't try to break your 500 baht bill here, okay?
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Bicycling is definitely a growing part of Thai culture.
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Good concept, weak execution.
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Can we talk about the food yet?
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This place was mere steps from our guesthouse. The food was outstanding.
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The mourning for the king was omnipresent. Certain towns in Thailand seemed more mournful than others, if judging by the percentage of people wearing black. In Bangkok, the black clothing rate was nearly 90%. We had been frequenting a nearby stationery store to buy packing tape and a big stripey bag and this and that. One day the aisles of the tiny shop were blocked by plastic chairs, where elderly women were watching a tv that was showing a large steel I-beam being lifted by a crane. They were silent and their eyes were glued, hand folded together.

Bruce and I looked at each other in puzzlement. Would it be rude to interrupt the I-beam worship by leaning over one of the ladies and grabbing a roll of packing tape? The cashier smiled and nodded, yes, do it. So we reached. The women ignored us. Mournful music played. The I-beam swayed gently against the blue sky and was lowered slowly onto another I-beam. The cashier told us quietly that they were laying down the foundations for the king’s cremation pyre, which would be built in a field not far from the palace. The cremation was still many months away, but building the pyre was a turning point in the official year of mourning. We left the store with the ladies still enraptured by I-beams.

It's hard to imagine what a profound impact the king has had on life in Thailand. Most Thai people alive have known no other king.
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100% score on the black clothing in this cafe.
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After several days of building bike boxes, drifting around looking for papayas, drinking coffee at Mama and Papa’s, we had to figure out a plan for getting to the airport. Our hotel is not accessible by auto, and we needed to be at the airport very early. So we filched a business card from the neighboring guest house that was accessible by car, and at 3 am I was standing by a pile of boxes and bags and swatting mosquitoes and Bruce was out on Sam Sen road flagging a taxi. One might think being out and about in Bangkok at that hour by one’s self would feel a little intimidating but as it turns out there were two security guards across the street laughing at something on their phones so I felt fine, if mosquito-bitten. Our taxi driver was a good one, he jumped to pack all of our stuff into his tiny pink taxi, drove oddly quiet Bangkok highways in zippy fashion, and got a nice tip when we pulled up at the airport.

The packing begins.
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The packing has ended.
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Our flight from Tokyo to Portland was one I had been worrying about. Delta had discontinued that flight leg before we even left on the trip, and had substituted Air Nippon to get us home, and getting a boarding pass online had proved impossible. It was not possible to get at the Bangkok airport either, so once we got to Tokyo there was a long line at their desk with several of us who had no boarding passes and weren’t in the mood to stick around Narita any longer than we had to. Some especially feisty people had already been there for 18 hours. Eventually the boarding pass materialized, we had seats, we were on our way home.

The Bangkok airport looks dazzling but is mostly uncomfortable and unwelcoming.
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18 minutes to touchdown.
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This was also the first time we have ever landed in Portland directly from an international flight. There had already been several protests of new, draconian immigration policy at the airport, so we were holding our breath that there would be no additional drama. And I must say, the mood at PDX felt pretty dour. There seemed to be an inordinate amount of uniformed people watching us enter, so different from San Francisco’s chill immigration officers. We filled out our forms, distracted the agent with bike travel stories, and everything was fine, except… except why were those elderly Chinese folks being hassled by the  agent, and why was there a burly armed guy taking them off to another room? A chirpy older woman volunteer glared suspiciously at us all.

A common opinion abroad, it turns out.
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There was one more shuttle bus, two more carts to load up, and then there was my son waiting for us with a happy smile, a sight for sore eyes, a reminder why home is a wonderful place where the people you love are.

But, this was a different country than when we left in October and it showed.  I had followed the dismaying march of political events from afar, but here we were in the midst of it, and people seemed dispirited and tired. Portland itself was looking pretty dreary after a long, hard winter. Sword ferns in the forest by the freeway had been squashed flat by snow, the grass was grayish instead of wintery Oregon green and even though it was March there were few blossoming trees or daffodils. Our kitty had received the best of loving care, but was visibly older.

There she is, Miss America.
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Scott AndersonBeautiful. What a sweet cat!
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8 months ago

It takes a while to adjust to life at home again. But we have dear family and good friends, burritos, fires in the fireplace, a very very comfortable bed that I had missed very much, and spring will be showing up kicking and screaming any day now. There is the hunt for the red wool sweater and warm socks and unpacking, and then eventually we will start looking over the words, the photos, the video clips, and try to distill what we did and where we were into something that will cause us someday when we are older to ask each other, “That was a great trip, wasn’t it? How did we even do that?”

We never knew what would happen next or where we would end up each day. It’s not everybody’s way of travel but it’s ours and we love it. Every night in Asia I would be awake at 4 am, reading the news, emails, and looking at maps to see where a good direction for the next day would be. Then I would fall back to sleep and when the real morning arrived we had a papaya, a coffee, a bowl of muesli and soy milk, roosters in the yard, and a road, laid out before us like gifts from heaven. I’d like to say a little prayer of thanksgiving for wheels, for pedals, for a breeze, for the passage of time and waving grasses and everything that made each day good enough to be the last one.

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