Thailand – Take One

13 Oct

Having scored a great many tasty waves during my monthlong surf safari in Bali (although not a single barrel despite my high hopes for doing so), by October it was time to sell the Black Beauty to a very stoked Brazilian, pack up the rest of my surf gear and move on to Phase 2 of the trip which some of you readers will be happy to know wouldn’t involve a single wave (tasty or otherwise) as it would take me to Bangkok and Northern Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.

I began with a few nights in Bangkok. From there, I took a train to Sukhothai for two nights before heading further north by bus to Chiang Mai for a week. I was a little less than diligent in blogging during this time and thus I’m going to just cover a few highlights in this post. I’ll be back through Thailand again in January and I’ll hopefully write in more detail about it then. But for now here are a few randomly ordered thoughts and pictures from my two weeks there in early October.

Bangkok is big and the traffic is every bit as bad as advertised particularly when you arrive in a downpour during rush hour. I quickly learned that street addresses often aren’t that useful for locating buildings and communicating in English with a taxi driver who only speaks and reads Thai can be challenging. That being said, I dig Bangkok. It seems to be a very happening city and I’m looking forward to exploring it more as I’ll be in and out of there several times on this trip.

Taking to the river or canals is one way to avoid the goat rope of Bangkok’s streets. But when taking the water taxis you don’t necessarily get to wear matching outfits or paddle in unison or chant as these guys were doing one afternoon as part of a barge ceremony.

I also really dig riding in tuk tuks but a certain type of tuk tuk driver in Banglok is always out to sell you something. Such salesmanship, and the potential detours that come along with it, can be good fun if you’re not pressed for time and approach it all as part of the Bangkok experience. It’s funny how many drivers seem to know of a tailor who makes suits for Armani and just so happens to be running a one day only special sale on what is clearly your lucky day! But you’re probably better off being a bit wary of them if your time in town is limited or you aren’t amused by the constant attempts to redirect you from your intended destination to a tailor, gem shop, massage joint or upstanding purveyor of ping pong and dart related entertainment and I’m not talking about a game room. Here’s me and my knees in the back of a tuk tuk…

Why does a certain type of male backpacker feel the need to buy and wear puffy pantaloons while they’re in SE Asia? What makes this travelwear in their minds? Do they wish they were genies? Jugglers? Do they wear them when they go home? Would they wear them when traveling elsewhere? To Rome? Tokyo? Moscow? New York? If they did so for the latter, would their chances of getting mugged increase exponentially? Should I buy some for my pals back home?

The Pad Thai here is indeed delicious as evidenced by this poster that was hanging on the wall at Thip Samai, a restaurant I visited in Bangkok that specializes in Pad Thai…

I’m fairly certain that the one kid is waving the flag and the other two kids are jumping for joy because as Thais they often get to eat Pad Thai.

And in that particular restaurant, as well as several others I visited, they wrap it all in a very thin omelette rather than incorporating the egg into the mix which is generally how I’ve seen the dish approached stateside.

But it is the curries (and the green curries in particular) that have been the real culinary revelation for me in Thailand thus far as they are far better than any I have had in the States. Here’s a green curry I made in my cooking class in Chiang Mai…

While it wasn’t among the best green curries I tried in Thailand, it was nevertheless a solid dish although that is really owing more to the ingredients selected for me than my handling of them.

Chiang Mai curry is a dark red curry with tamarind and peanuts in it and I believe it generally incorporates pork. When served with Som Tum (papaya salad which is also tremendous over here), sticky rice and an ice cold Chang, as it was for me at Aroon Rai in Chiang Mai, it makes for a most formidable meal and the best I had in Thailand during my first go around there..

As background info for the precious few of you who haven’t been keeping up with my exercise habits over the past couple of years, I started taking Muay Thai (aka Thai kickboxing) classes in Los Angeles last year and thus I was very excited to see a few bouts in Bangkok and find a gym at which to try my hand (and my elbows, knees and legs) at some training.

I caught a night of fights at Rajadamnern Stadium, the oldest Muay Thai venue in Bangkok, and it was nothing short of brilliant. There is live music played throughout the fight with the tempo and intensity of that music mirroring the tempo and intensity of the fight. It’s rowdy up in the cheap seats as there is heavy betting on most fights with the placing and taking of wagers being almost as entertaining to watch as the fight itself. Here’s my view of the action in one fight from my third row seat…

And here’s me with the champ after his 5 round decision…

The fighters are some of the toughest and best conditioned athletes I’ve ever seen. They also seem to be some of the most respectful and humble. Fortunately, the intensity of the training is toned down a bit for the casual farang practitioner like me. In fact, many gyms are open to complete beginners. But that certainly doesn’t mean it isn’t a serious workout particularly given the heat and humidity in play at an open air gym. I don’t recall sweating that much since summer basketball practices in my high school’s non-air conditioned gym back in Tampa. I finished each session with a big bottle of water and a delicious fruit shake from my favorite street vendor and was generally still dehydrated. Here’s one such fruit shake made with dragon fruit…

I spent 5 days training in Chiang Mai at Ajahn Berklerk Pinsinchai’s gym and probably learned more in those five days than I had learned in 5 months of training in Los Angeles and at about half the cost on a per class basis. Here’s the Ajahn and I…

I had a blast pretending to be a real fighter for a few days and I’ll definitely be headed back to the same gym in late December upon my return to Chiang Mai. I’ll also be catching at least one more evening of fights in Bangkok so keep your eyes peeled for another entry of The Getting There’s Man Slammin’ Muay Thai Max Out in the not too distant future.

Sukhothai was the capital of the kingdom from roughly the 13th to the 15th centuries and there are some UNESCO designated ruins from that period located just outside of town. I spent a day wandering around the ruins which were certainly interesting but, in my opinion, by no means mandatory for a trip to Thailand particularly because visiting them means the popular overnight train between Bangkok and Chiang Mai won’t be an option.

The Buddha teaches us the importance of compassion and patience which is good because this particular Buddha at Sukhothai needs plenty of both to handle the thousands of tourists over the years who have probably posed for a photo in the exact same manner as this clown…

And for my final randomly ordered thought and photo, I give to you Monk Chat…

The monk in this photo and I spent the better part of an hour discussing Buddhism and his day to day life as a monk as part of a program at Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Mai in which monks are available most afternoons to talk with visitors about Buddhism and other topics. The monks, in turn, have the opportunity to practice their English. It was really cool and I learned quite a bit about what his life as a monk entails such as very early wake up calls, lots of meditation, chores, studies not only in Buddhism but in other religious traditions as well and no running or other rigorous forms of exercise in public. In fact, I don’t think they are really supposed to exercise at all other than strolling about town. But the monk I hung out with confided in me that he sometimes does push ups when the elder monks aren’t around. Shaolin monks these are not.

He is 23 and became a novice at the age of 14 which required him to leave his home in a small village near the Burmese border to live at a temple, or wat, near Chiang Mai. I learned that one reason many boys become monks is the fact that it provides them with the opportunity to get a good education and, once they have that education, many move on to life outside of a monastery. In fact, the monk I chatted with was but a year away from receiving his university degree in both religion (which is a required course of study) and education (a course of study that he selected) and it sounded like there is a good chance he will eventually turn in his monk’s robes to become a school teacher back in his village.

But our discussion was not confined solely to Buddhism as we touched upon several other topics of vital importance such as Premier League Football and Jackie Chan films. Talking with him made me realize that many Buddhist monks are just regular dudes with whom I have far more in common than I would have anticipated. I’m definitely planning to return for another round of Monk Chat when I’m in Chiang Mai again in December.

And that’s all I have on Thailand for now.

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