Mediocre egg breakfast at the hotel. We settled for safety after seeing mysterious barbecued carcasses, organ kabobs, tendon-intestine stew, and whole fried ducks hanging inside rotisserie windows. The vegetarian options in Chinatown are slim (sorry Sierra). I have the ambition to devour mysterious food from the odd corner stand, but on this day we dine together.
After breakfast we find ourselves stepping through weaving alleys. There are small forklifts moving engine blocks through an continuous stream of pedestrians. Machine shops are spilling onto the sidewalk as piles of parts are prepared for assembly on site.
And find ourselves on a wider walk-and-shop street. The mopeds are ever-present, carting boxes and crates between the droves of wandering shoppers. It smells like garbage, plastic packaging, and fried food.
Everywhere around us there are bodegas and narrow alcoves of shops, all mostly full of mass-produced merchandise: sneakers, handbags, clothes, gems, jewelry, phones, booze, food, and lottery tickets. It’s all very cheap with brand-name labels stickered on. I stop to check out faceted gemstones. Eying a case of opals I spy a few obvious fakes through the window. I stop in another shop and find some authentic African opals for a fair price. I note this for later and walk on.
I’ve never seen or smelled a flea market like this before. We saunter through the crowds, stopping to look but without buying anything. Our packs at the hotel are plenty heavy and we’re both in a jet-lag daze. We had not expected to come upon such a heavy morning bustle, but in a city like Bangkok with eight-million souls milling around, it’s highly unlikely to find anything but. We find ourselves being passed through the clogged arteries and spewing intestines of a flatulent urban sprawl. When the crowd thins out, we snap shots with our newfound elbow-room.
We round a corner to a main avenue full of engine fumes and competing vehicles clogging every conceivable space of roadway. The tuk tuk drivers always ask us where we’re going; awfully nice of them to be so concerned.
We let them know we haven’t got a clue where we’re going but we’re damn sure to get there by foot. I act as a speed-walking mime and wave them off. One of them points to my shorts pocket where I’ve crammed my neck-wallet. It’s holding my passport, debit card, and cash. He gives me a sarcastic thumbs up, helping me to recognize the green flag I’m waving to all prospective pickpockets.
I stretch my arms and loosen my shirt buttons so I can sling the neck wallet over my shoulder and down below my armpit into a secure spot. I feel very fresh off the boat and a freshly farang (foreigner).
We stop in a Chinese wine shop and inspect the various bottles of plum wine and rice spirits. I find a bottle of ginseng wine with a piece of root in the bottle. I figure our immunities could use the boost and our nerves could use the booze so I buy it and bag it up for later.
Continuing down the street, I find a street vendor with piles of I-Ching coins for sale and decide I ought to at least buy something non-edible from the sidewalk. Spending my money on coins? Sure. She pitches a high price. I offer her less but she’s stubborn. I’m careless to defend the odd dollar she’s marking me up and allow myself to be overcharged in favor of greasing the wheels of mercantile karma.
Further down the street we find a temple without an entrance fee, high and behold! It’s called something like “Temple of the Buddhas Golden Chair”, and looks to be one of the more modest of temples. It suits us just find as we ditch our footware and softly step around. We climb the stone steps to a wrap-around balcony which is covered in bird shit. We do our best not to step in it but it’s completely unavoidable.
All of the doors to the upper floor seem to be locked and most of the curtains are drawn. We poke around a bit and find one door open. It’s very tall and heavy and it creaks loudly as I push; there is a perfect reverb pitch from the door inside. It echoes itself into a lonely holy resonance.
The entry floor is delicate tile. A red carpet lines the whole room and leads to a magnificent alter lined with gold. I wipe my feet on the tile as best I can and begin to approach the alter to make the usual gestures and prostrations. Sierra is by the door, watching.
Halfway down to the alter, she whispers at me and points to the carpet. I’m leaving a trail of dark footprints, slowly disappearing as the carpet pulls the dirt from my feet. I am embarrassed to drag my filth into a holy house but I know I must finish what I started and that I did, mentally asking for forgiveness from the monks who clean the house and from the spirits which abide therein. Sierra has gone off to look for a toilet.
Alone for a moment, I play with the resonance of my voice inside the big room. It all adds up; these big rooms are designed for gospel tunes and transcendent drones. I creak the door shut and we make our way downstairs. I try to hurry because we haven’t found a bathroom in the house and Sierra needs to relieve herself just as much as I.
We check out the downstairs temple and see hand-carved wooden statues of the resident abbots and monks, some of whom seem to have been elevated to a saintly status. We refrain from snapping any photos.
Onward and outward,we find a narrow alley to pee in and check our tourist cartoon map. It looks like Khao San road isn’t too far off, I suggest we go there to see the Bourbon Street of Bangkok but the heat of the day is taking its toll on us both. Sierra suggests cold beers in a calm part of Chinatown. We refer to the cartoon map for directions.
On our way back to our room, I stop in for a cheap plate of chicken and rice in what looks like an office room, complete with office chairs. The rice cookers are positioned to look like fax machines and the hot plates, copy machines. I eat at my desk while Sierra sips on a bean shake. The shake tastes like you would expect. Not a bad meal not a good one either. The chicken looks like pork and tastes kind of like chicken. I ate it all and it sat heavy in my stomach on the walk back. I resolve to find the real spirit of Chinatown food before we go.
We pass the machine shops, still at it! They even have this little hero cutting copper:
We debate whether to head south or north from Bangkok. Tomorrow we check out from our hotel. I suggest a train to Chiang Mai. Sierra wants nothing to do with an eleven hour train ride right now so we debate taking a thirty dollar flight. We can go to the mountains or we can go to the islands. Chiang Mai vs Phuket.
After considering both options and butting heads to pick a way (the jet lag has us both a bit short), we select Phuket as our next destination and purchase plane tickets for the next evening.
We debate the prospect of “going out” but our hotel is damn hard to find on foot by daylight. With no Thai language skills and no smartphone, we don’t feel much like partying. We acknowledge that it’s lame and we’re passing up a large piece of human spectacle and party culture and blah blah blah… for tonight.
Sierra wakes to start her morning yoga while I go out to find some street food for breakfast. She tells me not to get lost because we have only two hours ‘til checkout. I agree to do my best.
Passing through the first few food alleys, I find a nice woman frying fish and chicken with plenty of flies milling about. I say hello and try to ask how much, mangling the phrases and waving my hands like a magician.
Her daughter, maybe ten years old, is saying higher prices for every number her mom gives. The woman takes pity on me but the daughter has hustle in her blood and makes a mark of me. We all make eye contact to acknowledge the humor in this exchange, smiling and chuckling.
I select a few meat kabobs underneath the piles of fish (to avoid fly contact) and a bag of fermenting green vegetable-stuff. I pay the seemingly fair price she’s wagered and take my bag of breakfast to go.
I make a few more turns and realize I’m lost. I try to orient myself but nothing is static and it seems like the buildings themselves are moving.
I stop to buy some fruit from a ninja. He’s not wearing ninja attire but he wields the knife like a warrior as he applies surgical chef skills to my pineapple and papaya. It costs me more than the meat and veggies, but I appreciate the show.
I make a few random turns and sigh in relief as I find a worn-out sign to our guest house. I get back in time to enjoy my breakfast of chicken organs, fermented papaya salad, and fruit.
“Are you just off the boat or getting on the boat?”
“Getting on!” I yell over my shoulder as we dodge a moped. I hear him laughing behind us and we’re laughing too because we look like a sweaty couple of tumbleweeds trying to get blown out of the urban sprawl. All we need is a few days of peace & rest. We observe the contrasts of the city, both lively and decaying.
We pass a Thai man on the concrete island of an intersection, clearly hammered on cheap rot-gut, mumbling nonsense at farangs and giving the thumbs up with a toothless grin. In his mind, maybe he’s in a hammock by the beach while the waves of traffic bring him good fortune and calm.
Sitting at an int’l hostel restaurant, we hear the madame/waitress shouting orders to everyone. Firm but with good humor, she’s quite beautiful and carries a strong matriarchal presence. She makes sure to teach every farang how to say “thank you” in Thai. (Kaa-poon-kob for men, Kaa-poon-kaa for women.)