T H A I L A N D: Part III

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Parts I and II of my adventures in Thailand can be found here and here.

Part III

Thursday was full-on straight-up no-shit capital-H hot. By 8am I was sweating.

Moddang and I headed to Wat Pho, a temple in the old part of Bangkok. Like Wat Pananchoeng, Wat Pho was somewhat influenced by Chinese architecture and culture. There are several Chinese statues flanked on either side of doorways.

We tried to make it to the grand palace but quickly ran out of time. Moddang had IMG_0038some clients to see at Siriraj Hospital (where King Rama IX, in poor health at the moment, is also staying). We made our way through crowded, hot streets. Vendors selling food and trinkets were set up everywhere in every direction under big umbrellas. I smelled chicken and beef and deep fried things, grill smoke, cilantro, sweat, and a hundred other smells all at once. Finally, we made it to the dock where we took a ferry across the river to the hospital. We ate a quick lunch in a suspicious-looking coffeehouse, though food turned out splendid – indeed, the spicy apple salad I ordered was the first time I experienced the “narrowing of the senses” I sometimes get when food is too damn spicy.

Anyway, we made it to Siriraj in time. I waited for Moddang in the hospital coffee shop and read most of John le Carre’s Call for the Dead. I ordered a couple of iced teas; the waitstaff, who were very kind and happy, nonetheless seemed a little weirded out by a farang (foreigner) in their establishment. Still, it was nice to cool down for a little while – I’d been sweating pretty profusely.

IMG_0071When Moddang finished, she and I and her boss (farang like me) took another ferry downriver. We said our goodbyes to her boss and took the train to Siam Square. I was back to sweating through my clothes, so the air conditioning in the huge (and I mean huuuuuuge) mall was most welcome.

We ate an excellent dinner at Greyhound. Moddang ordered salmon sashimi with dill and mint leaves, and a dressing of fish sauce, lime juice, chili peppers, and sugar. I’d never eaten raw salmon before except in maki rolls, not to mention that I’m not a big raw fish fan in general, so I was a little suspicious. The dish was light and flavorful. Particularly of note: the first bit I tried was without the dill or mint; the second, with the dill, was an entirely new sensation of taste and, for a moment, I contemplated eating nothing else but this dish for the rest of my days; the third piece, with dill and mint, doubled that feeling.IMG_0137

I ordered a buffalo burger (so American, I know). The reason I ordered it, however, wasn’t because I was feeling homesick or tired of Thai food (that’s simply impossible) – it was because the bun the burger was served with charred and injected with squid ink. So, um, yes please. The burger was fairly standard in taste except for the basil leaf which, for whatever reason, raised it from pretty good to wildly good. I’m definitely putting basil leaves on all my burgers now.

We also ordered a spicy soup dish which, while good, was the least interesting of the meal dishes. We only had two tiffs with the restaurant: 1) they neglected to serve us the buns and butter that usually come before the meal, and 2) Moddang was given chopsticks and I was not: a clear iinsult to my farangness! I kid, I kid.

After dinner, we wandered the mall for awhile. There was so much to see, so many flashing lights. We visited Siam Paragon, another huge mall next to Siam Square (Siam Discovery, yet another gigantic shopping center was accessible by train tube, but we didn’t go). In Paragon, we found an awesome bookstore. I was happy. Moddang was happy.

Clarion chums Kali Wallace and Tom Underberg each have a short piece in this anthology, edited by our final two weeks instructors, Jeff and Ann Vandermeer.

Clarion chums Kali Wallace and Tom Underberg each have a short piece in this anthology, edited by our final two weeks instructors, Jeff and Ann Vandermeer.

We took the BTS and MRT trains home. Moddang’s parents picked us up at the station and we returned to photobooks of Moddang’s youth. Although we needed to wake up early again to get to Salaya, we were up until midnight talking, looking at photos, and watching YouTube videos. After awhile, I didn’t mind the heat at all.

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T H A I L A N D: Part II

3-headed Elephant seen from Rama VIII Bridge.

3-headed Elephant seen from Rama VIII Bridge.

Part I of my trip to Thailand can be found here.

PART II

On our way home from the beach, we stopped at Seacon Square, a huge shopping center, not far from Moddang’s house. Here,  I managed to get a few gifts for my friends and family back in the US, and we also bought Bubble Tea for Moddang’s family. Back at the house, her maid Na Aw had made me a birthday dinner of pad thai. If you’ve only ever had pad Thai in the US, then you’ve never had pad Thai: this was supreme.

(I also tried a variety of fruits I’d either never heard of or had never tried: more cham poo, mangosteen, lon gon, and lom yai [known as longan in the West], as well guava and pomelo, and the famed king of fruits: durian, but more on that later.)

On Wednesday, Moddang’s parents took the two of us north to the old capital, Ayutthaya. We left before sunrise, stopping at the open market near their house. Many of the vendors were either still setting up or already cooking chicken and beef, and deep frying. Moddang’s mother bought us each two drumsticks and a bag of sticky rice for breakfast. It was the first day one might call “balmy”.

In Ayutthaya, we visited the Buddhist temple Wat Yai Chai Mongkorn. I was IMG_9689spectacularly unprepared for the awe I felt there. Much of the temple was ruins, and a giant Buddha statue lying on its side was exposed to the elements, its torso and legs protected by a large sheet. We climbed steep steps to a small room where a man sat and handed out folded pieces of paper with square golden strips inside for a donation. Moddang told me you unfold the paper and press the golden square onto one of the several statues of Buddhas in the corners of the room. We looked down on a garden with a large white Buddha statue.

The second temple we visited was Wat Pananchoeng, which was built to honor a Chinese princess who took her own life. The Buddha inside was huge and golden. I lit candles and incense; I again pressed gold-painted paper onto many Buddha’s hands and chests and legs; I was swatted with water by a monk.

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Moddang’s father asked me if I wanted my fortune told. He told me to sit on the right side of a small ceramic elephant with a handle on its back. The first time I was to think of what I wanted and that I would succeed in picking up the elephant by the handle with just my pinky finger; the second time I was to think of the same thing I wanted and that I would not succeed in picking up the elephant. So I did, and the first time I was able – though just barely – to pick up the elephant with my pinky; the second time, however, I couldn’t even lift it a little. A good thing.

In the Chinese princess’ shrine, I shook a box of sticks to tell my fortune. According to this fortune, I will not be successful in the short run in what I want to do, but if I keep working and work hard, in the long run, I will see some success. Not exactly promising or inspiring for a lazy American growing up an instant gratification world.

Outside of Wat Pananchoeng, we searched along a row of vendors for trinkets and gifts for the folks back in the US. I found a couple of things but had many gifts to go.

Lunch on the boat. Chao Praya.

Lunch on the boat. Chao Praya.

Ayutthaya is located in the valley of the Chao Praya river. For lunch, Moddang’s parents rented a boat that took us along the Chao Praya while we ate. We had fried rice, a beef dish, more fish, and spicy soup, and washed it down with Coke. The river was dark green and mostly calm. We saw a man and presumably his son fishing with nets. The boat passed the royal family’s house situated on the banks of the river; it was very modern and stylish.

We also saw perhaps the most interesting of sights on the river: a Catholic church, a Buddhist temple, and Islamic mosque all within hundreds of feet of each other.

Buddhist temple and Islamic mosque along the Chao Praya.

Buddhist temple and Islamic mosque along the Chao Praya.

Christian Church along the Chao Praya.

Christian Church along the Chao Praya.

(As the boat returned to the dock, the captain let me pretend to steer.)

The Pondering Captain.

The Pondering Captain.

Wednesday evening, the other maid P’Tik had cooked us a fresh and powerfully spicy dinner. It consisted of beef with a dressing of lime juice, fish sauce, chili peppers, and cilantro poured over it; a dish called yum made with shredded white mushrooms, black mushrooms, lettuce, fish, squid, and shrimp.

IMG_9901Earlier that day, between Wat Pananchoeng and the boat ride, Moddang and I visited the cultural center of Ayutthaya where we learned a little of its history. There were lots of old maps – by both Thai and Dutch mapmakers – of the old palace before it was burned to the ground by Burmese warriors. We visited the ruins of the old palace and temple. The scorch marks along the red and brown bricks of the remaining buildings and walls were still evident. Moddang and I climbed the ruins. As upon entering Wat Yai Chai Mongkorn, the sense of awe I felt at witnessing the ruins was tangible; conversely, however, where I felt something akin to the spiritual at Mongkorn, at the burned palace my awe was tinged with its loss.

Part III Coming Soon.

T H A I L A N D: Part I

IMG_9563I arrived in Bangkok just shy of midnight under a blood orange moon. After I’d passed through immigration (easy) and found my luggage (much delayed), I met Moddang and her brother Moo at Gate 3 and the three of us made our way to their car. I’d been told/warned of Thailand’s suffocating heat, but I’d planned my arrival in a twofold operation: 1) I arrived at night, and 2) during the cool season. Outside, it was as pleasant a night in early summer Chicago – nice breeze, no mugginess. When we got to Moddang’s parent’s house, I went right to sleep (I had decided not to sleep at all on the plane from Chicago to Hong Kong – a 16 hour trip – and managed a quick nap from Hong Kong to Bangkok).

On Sunday morning, I woke without any effects of jet lag. I was very happy. After family introductions and a small breakfast of soy milk with added goodies and chom poo (a dark green fruit that has a pear-like taste, possibly called a “water apple”), we all drove to Pattaya, south of Bangkok for lunch.

Mum Aroy was a beachside restaurant on the Gulf of Thailand. It was a light andIMG_9260 breezy day; I thought that if this were the cool season, that’d sit right by me and perhaps the hot season wasn’t so bad as everyone said. Moddang’s parents ordered a feast for lunch. The first that came was a whole cooked fish bathed in lime juice, cilantro, and chili peppers. I was offered the fish’s cheek, an honor because it is considered the best part of the fish; and it was: sweeter than the rest of the fish, the flesh melted on your tongue. We also had a plate of fried pork fat, clams and fish balls that was very good; a similar dish consisting of fried pork fat, mussels, and fish eggs was much spicier but just as delicious. There was spicy tom zap (which, to Moddang’s family’s surprise, I ate without coughing or turning red), a vegetable dish with water lilies, and of course a bowl of rice. For dessert, I had rambutan on shaved ice; Moddang had creamed corn on shaved ice, which was, I must say, much tastier than I expected. All in all, it was a great welcome-to-Thailand lunch.

Between lunch and dessert, Moddang, her mother, and I took some photos on the beach:

IMG_9334We drove to Nong Nooch Village after lunch to watch the elephants. Before the elephants, however, we caught a show of traditional Thai dancers which Moddang described as “lame” and “for tourists.” The elephants, however, were cute and dusty; how they loved those bananas. We were back in Bangkok by evening, and settled in for some quiet conversation and KFC (Moddang wanted me to experience Thailand’s version of the famous chicken franchise).

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Although I hadn’t experienced any jet lag yet, I was pretty exhausted and by 9pm we had gone to bed; Moddang had to get up early on Monday, anyway. So we woke at 5:30am and the two of us drove to Salaya, west of Bangkok, where she works at Mohidal University – Salaya Campus as a music therapist and teacher. Even at six o’clock in the morning, traffic through Bangkok was crushingly congested. Salaya is about thirty miles from Moddang’s home but it took us a good ninety minutes to get there. While she worked I sat beside a pool filled with fish and finished Cat Rambo’s Near from her Near + Far collection of short stories. It was yet again another beautiful day and not hot in the least.

IMG_9548After Moddang finished work, we drove two hours to the south of Thailand, to Cha-am, for the night. We stayed in a luxurious hotel right on the Gulf. I drank Singha; it’s true what they say: beer from the source is so much better than exported. We swam in a freezing cold pool. In the morning, we woke before dawn and went down to the beach to watch the sun rise. We saw a beached jellyfish. There were fishing boats out on the water. The sun rose from behind a fog, then broke through, bright and golden, and I pretended to eat it. It was my thirty-third birthday.