Monday, November 9, 2015

Thailand, Part 1

We'd been planning a short trip to Thailand for a couple months, and the time finally arrived for departure, the idea being to see what the city of Chiang Mai looks like, and to meet some of the Japanese community there. At about 8 AM Monday morning (Nov. 2nd) we took the bullet train up to Fukuoka, and then Thai Air to Bangkok. There was a short layover, and then a 1-hour connecting flight to Chiang Mai. The main flight was 5-6 hours long, enough that I could watch Inside-Out, Despicable Me and Wreck-It Ralph for the in-flight movies. At about 5 PM, the sky started getting dark and we were treated to a really nice sunset that didn't photograph well through the cabin windows. Most of the clouds were towering monsters along the horizon past the mountains. Chiang Mai is located on an alluvial plain between a couple mountain ranges at the north end of Thailand. It was dark when we got through customs (which went smoothly) at about 6 PM. A Japanese travel agent was waiting for us at the departures gate, and he had a taxi van lined up to take us to the hotel near the Iron Bridge along the Ping river (AKA: Rimping). There had been a lot of food on the flight, so we didn't really need dinner.

The hotel was kind of weird. The front entrance and back side facing the river are open and don't have enclosing walls. The floors of the rooms are concrete, and the shower doesn't have a door. If you take a shower, it's not really comfortable having someone else at the sink brushing their teeth. But, the room had a big flatscreen TV and cable. Half the channels showed Thai dramas or government-sponsored national news programs. There were 3-4 channels showing cartoons and Japanese anime (the American cartoons, like Chowder and Tom and Jerry, were in Thai. The anime were either in Japanese or English). SyFy was in English, as was Universal (the international version of the USA channel), but generally they just played the same reruns over and over of Motive, Psych, CSI:CI, Continuum and Haven. At night, we'd get visitors.

They loved the light, but hated any movements. Unfortunately, they insisted on staying outside; we never had them coming into the room. There was a supermarket almost directly across the street from the front of the hotel, so we stocked up on things that we figured we didn't need to bring with us, like toothbrushes, toothpaste, etc., plus things that we knew we'd need, like bottled water, juice, milk and snacks. The S&P market is much better than the ones in Kagoshima, and most stuff is maybe half the price. (1 yen = 0.29 Baht, or 1 Baht = about 3 cents USD.) When we got done with that, there wasn't much time left to do any real wandering around, so we ate in the room, and watched TV until falling asleep (note that Thailand is 2 hours behind Japan). (Also note that drinking tap water is a BAD thing, so everyone drinks bottle water. Restaurants don't give you glasses of ice water unless you pay for it.)

We got up a bit late, but the hotel was still making breakfast when we arrived at the porch at 9 AM. They had 3 items on the menu - Thai rice and chicken soup; a ham and cheese sandwich; and fried egg, sausage and toast, plus coffee. Each choice was 80 baht ($2.40 USD) and was pretty filling. The secret menu item was a fried egg, cheese and ham sandwich, also for 80 baht. The coffee in Thailand is really good just about everywhere. It's thick and strong, either from a machine or a French press.

The sky was cloudy all day, and there was a light rain that night. The temperatures were probably in the low 80's - warm, but not too humid.

There was a temple down the other side of the river that I never had a chance to visit. In part it was because of our schedule, and in part because I really hated walking along the streets. Most of the time, there's no sidewalk, and the traffic can get really heavy during rush hour. The air gets extremely polluted, too. Very few people walk at all. The locals have scooters, bicycles or cars. The tourists use red taxis or tuktuks.

Looking at the hotel from the river.

There's a small shrine in the yard of the hotel. Shrines are very common here, and many of them have offerings, including food, raw coconuts and incense sticks.

Inside of the shrine. I think that's supposed to be the king and queen.

After breakfast, we headed into the downtown area for a bit of sightseeing. All along the way, red taxi and tuktuk drivers tried to get our attention. The Rimping (Ping river) has 4 major bridges at this end of the city (which is the opposite side from the airport). The first is the Iron Bridge, a single-lane trestle bridge that looks like it was originally built for trains. It's currently popular with fishermen during the day, and bored teenagers in the evening. For some reason, it's also a popular place for women wanting fashion photos taken; there's usually a cameraman with a rig and lights hanging around looking for work. 4 blocks away, there's a second, white stone bridge. And a third white bridge a few blocks past that. The American Embassy is on the other side of the river, just past the third bridge. The Iron Bridge leads into the night bazaar. Bridge Two leads to the city center. Everywhere, there are coffee shops, parked tuktuks, Buddhist temples, and food stalls set up on three-wheeled motorcycles.

The Governor's Residence is also nearby.

The front gates were closed, although one side gate was unlocked. Unfortunately, we didn't have time to go inside.

While there are stop lights, they seem to be more of a suggestion than something imposed on drivers by any actual laws. Often, when a crosswalk light turns green for pedestrians, the cars and scooters won't stop unless you're walking directly in front of them.

(Shrine in a bank parking lot.)

The main street goes through the city center, then deadends at a T-intersection at the other side. There's a big temple nearby, along with a residence building for the monks, and a school for children. On the whole, the priests are standoffish, and if they're in the temple will spend most of their time running the trinkets tables. If they're outside, they either ignore any tourists they meet, or cluster together in groups.

The temples all have the same rules: Dress modestly (no shorts or cut-offs for women) and take your shoes off before entering the building. There were quite a few temples around the city, but I rarely felt compelled to take photos of them. I'm just not that attracted by the artwork or designs of the temples and statues here.

This is a Tuktuk - a 3-wheeler capable of seating two passengers. Red taxis can hold up to 10 people, and can cost between 20 and 50 baht per person, but they don't have a fixed route. So, it takes longer to get to your destination if someone else jumps in and asks to go somewhere else that's not quite along your way. A tuktuk is 10-20% more expensive, but you get to where you want to go faster. There are a LOT of tuktuks parked all over the place with no passengers.

Tuesday and Wednesday were spent being shuttled around by the Japanese tourist agency operator and his Thai driver in an air-conditioned van. Mostly we just looked at the more modern part of the city. Tuesday night, I had dinner at The Duke's, an American-styled joint that serves steaks, pasta, and Tex-Mex dishes, and is located just a couple blocks from the hotel. I ordered the cheese and chicken enchilada dinner and the Duke's Hard Tea to drink. It was a lot of food, and most of it was good (not including the stringy guacamole), for only $10.

I have to mention one oddity. As I was walking from the hotel at about 8 PM, I got to the Iron Bridge and it was closed off by police cars with flashing red lights. Next to the bridge were at least 40 men in brown uniforms all standing at attention, facing the river. None of them were moving or doing anything obvious. Initially I thought there might have been an accident, or someone was protesting the government again. Then I noticed that a woman was standing in the middle of the bridge with her hands in the air, and a cameraman was walking around her taking photos. I guess it was just a regular fashion photo shoot. Regardless, I'd left the hotel without my passport, so I really didn't want to attract any attention to myself as I headed for The Duke's for dinner. When I finished and returned to the hotel, everyone was gone and the area was normal again.

Wednesday afternoon, when I had a little free time, I wandered up the river to the third bridge, to see what the hours are for the American Embassy, since it was so close.

(Flower shop.)

This is a red taxi. You can either flag one down as it drives by, or look for one parked alongside the street. There's a little haggling room to bring the fare down 10 baht or so. When you both agree on the fare, you hop in the back and pay when you get to your destination. Other people can flag your red taxi, too, and ask to go somewhere else not quite along your route, so you never know how long the ride will be.

Getting closer to the embassy. I have no idea who the billboard is aimed at - there's almost no foot traffic along the river, and the river boat tours probably have little incentive to say much about it. The area around the river doesn't feel all that friendly, either. Bored kids hang out in some areas, and the red taxi drivers use the walls down at river level as urinals.

This wall is part of the American Embassy. It's also part of a neighborhood art project, and local kids were encouraged to paint on it. The embassy itself is only open to American citizens by appointment, for 4 hours a day on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Non-citizens looking for travel visas have to apply on Mondays and Wednesdays. Otherwise, the doors remain locked. So, I couldn't get in Wednesday, and when I checked the schedule online from the computer at the hotel, I discovered that there were no reservation openings until the next week. So I gave up on that idea and just kept walking.

Street intersection at the end of the embassy.

Boat tours are fairly common. Most of the tourists I saw, or met, were either Chinese, European or Australian. The Chinese tourists were really good at haggling. The European tourists, mainly German or French, weren't that talkative. The Australians were more friendly, and most of them seemed to be retired, spending 2 months in Thailand, and 2 months back home.

Heading back to the hotel.
More tomorrow.

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