Archive for March, 2008

Mar 02 2008

Won’t you take me to Monkey Town?

Published by under Monkey Town,Thailand

In high school, I once did a project for my Architecture class in which I submitted plans for a proposed town, which I christened Monkey Town. It was a poorly laid-out town with little thought given to any of the city-construction elements that we were probably supposed to be considering, but gave me a chance to draw monkeys climbing on things, which is what I really wanted to be doing with my precious time. I probably deserved an F, but my teacher was a good guy, and humored me with his decision that Monkey Town was an idea worth considering. Today, his eternal patience is vindicated. Monkey Town is alive and well, my friends. And it’s in Thailand.

Thai for “Monkey Town” must be “Lopburi”, which is a small town about about 100km north of Bangkok. It is only accessible by telling the train station attendant that you want to go to “Lope Boo-lee”, as opposed to the monkey-less town somewhere SOUTH of Bangkok whose name sounds exactly like the way a Westerner would pronounce “Lopburi.” Close call there.

When you step off the train in Lopburi, you know good things lie ahead as you are greeted by a giant golden statue of a howling monkey. But you don’t know how good until you make your way into town, and see your first free-living monkey swinging from a telephone line. The people of Lopburi make no visible effort to restrict the size or borders of the monkeys’ territory in town, but the monkeys have laid claim to an area with pretty clear parameters. I have no idea where these monkeys came from in the first place, but they must have been reminded of their original home when they first arrived in Lopburi and spotted two ancient temples, with a busy traffic intersection in between. They now fill their days by eating at one temple, napping at the other, and causing endless mayhem by sprinting back and forth through car and motorcycle traffic.

Maybe that’s an overly simplified description of the typical Lopburi monkey day. To be fair, the monkeys also chase tourists, hang from convenience store awnings, try to break into hotel rooms (which has forced all hotel owners to put bars over their windows), jump on telephone poles, and torment domesticated cats and dogs. Some even learn manners: when we were leaving one restaurant near the temples, a monkey sitting on the sidewalk opened and held the door for us.

Seeing is believing when it comes to Monkey Town, so please enjoy the following multimedia account of our two unforgettable days in Lopburi:

Monkey having fun on a telephone line in Lopbuli
Here’s the king of the telephone wire…



The king of the giant banana pile
…and the king of the giant banana pile!



Brittany gives a monkey a cool drink
Brittany gives a monkey a refreshing drink of water…



Monkey retreats to Buddha statue after stealing Brittany's water bottle
…and he steals the bottle and flees to a Buddha statue.



Monkeys love cool milk
The monkeys have learned how to open tasty milk bottles…



A monkey climbs Brittany!
…and how to climb girls to get to the shiny bangles on their purses! Once Brittany shook this guy off, he fought her for the purse, tug-of-war style. I’m sorry to say that I missed capturing that moment on camera because I was running over to help battle the little bugger.


Also, see what happens when a tourist buys food at a Lopburi snack bar…

…and check our our Flickr page and Vimeo page for more photos and videos of Monkey Town!

As hard as it may be to believe, there isn’t much else to do in Lopburi besides play with/laugh at/run from the monkeys, so after two days in town, it was time to head north to Chiang Mai. But here I fulfill a promise I made to a Buddhist monk inside one of the monkeys’ two temples, who urged me, “Tell you friends to come to Monkey City!” Dear friends: do come to Lopburi, where you can run and play with the best things that ever happened to the town’s hopes for a tourism-based economy. Just hold on to your purse…

Seriously, beware

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Mar 02 2008

Going out with a Bangkok!

Published by under Bangkok,Thailand

Shortly after Ben discovered there was an amulet market in Bangkok, we found ourselves turning into a dark, low-roofed alley near the city’s waterfront. I’m going to pretend his excitement didn’t stem from a love of fantasy role-playing video games. We’d heard that the amulet trade in Thailand was extensive and it didn’t take us long to notice the silver chain poking out from underneath the shirt collar of nearly every Thai, so we wanted to see what an amulet market was all about.

amulets!
amulets!

The alley extended as far as the eye could see, crowded with row upon row of vendors selling Buddha figurines — some tiny and encased in plastic to wear around your neck, others nearly life-sized — elephant and monkey statues, Buddhist symbols, amulet repair, and, strangely enough, images of the royal family to wear as amulets. The Thai regard their monarch with a reverence that can only be described as extreme. You can’t go in to any establishment without seeing a nearly shrine-like set up surrounding a large portrait of the king or queen. As a foreigner accustomed to jaded criticism of one’s own government, it’s important to remember that in Thailand you DO NOT talk about the royal family for fear of being charged with lese-majeste and ending up in prison for seven years, as many unfortunate Westerners before me have discovered. For that reason, I’ll end this discussion now.

Because we simply couldn’t leave an amulet market empty handed, I bought the tiniest Buddha, no bigger than my fingertip. Sometimes I rub his belly for good luck.

We left the market for one of Bangkok’s many mammoth malls, so Ben could pick up some cheap mosquito-proof lightweight trekking pants. Have we mentioned how huge everything is in Bangkok? Coming from Europe, where grocery stores, shopping centers and highways are teeny and squeezed into very limited space, it was a shock to walk into Bangkok’s numerous behemoth supermarkets and malls. Did you know it was possible to get lost in a supermarket? It is when it’s six stories high and the size of a city block.

Our next stop was a mall we’d read about dedicated entirely to electronics. At Pantips Plaza, you can buy cameras, TVs, computer hardware, and game systems. You can also flip through binders upon binders of software that sells in the States for $1000+ but here, mysteriously, for only $10! Really, I have no idea how they keep their prices so low. Thailand is amazing! So, theoretically, you could buy a fancy photo and video editing suite and an entire language-learning course for $12 and ship it home to the U.S. I mean, it would be possible to do that, if you wanted. Hypothetically speaking, of course.

So I’d hardly seen any prostitutes in Bangkok. I know, I know: most normal people would consider this a good thing. But with all the talk we’d heard from fellow travelers about how crazy and ubiquitous BKK’s sex-trade operation is, despite having wandered the entire city for nearly a week, I couldn’t help but feel like we must be missing something.

The main reason we’d been sheltered from such activity is that, honestly, we’d passed out every night at 9:00. Yes, I know, nerdy. But what with the climate change and daily ventures into the heart of the city, we found ourselves way too tired to do anything at night.

It was no different on our last night in Bangkok: we were exhausted. But since we’d been told that no trip to this city is complete without a visit to Phatpong, the notorious night market, we downed some Red Bull (which actually comes from Thailand, although the version here is much stronger, not carbonated, and comes with a health warning) and hit the town. It was all in the name of responsible journalism. How can I give an accurate depiction of Bangkok to you, beloved blog readers, if I do not experience all the city has to offer?

Turns out we weren’t missing much. Do you want to see creepy old white guys with too-young Thai girls? No, you don’t. (But if you come to Bangkok, you will. Such disturbing couples aren’t limited to after-hour night markets, and are as plentiful in Bangkok as spiky hair.)

But Phatpong is mostly notorious for the many erotic go-go girl clubs that line the streets. You know what I’m talking about: the shows in which girls do … um … tricks, I guess? with ping-pong balls. I’m won’t go into detail. I’m kind of uncomfortable.

It’s obvious Ben and I weren’t going to patronize such clubs and we thought they’d be easily avoidable. Just don’t go in. Right?

PhatpongWrong. Remember those restaurant greeters back on Crete? These clubs employ similar tactics to lure customers to their tables, only they are far, far more intrusive and annoying. They follow you down the street, waving white, laminated “menus” of sorts in your face with a list of all the incredible feats their girls can perform, and screaming “Come sit for free!!” and “One drink! One drink!” And by “you” I mean ME as for some reason every bouncer on the street honed in on me as their target and refused to leave me alone even when I screamed “LOOK, I DON’T CARE WHAT YOUR GIRLS CAN DO WITH CHOPSTICKS, I AM NOT GOING INSIDE.”

To escape the flock of hawkers, we chose a small bar on the outskirts to relax, order beers, and people watch. But were we left alone? No. This time, sketchy men would slide up beside Ben, whip booklets out of their pockets, flip through the pages, and whisper, “sexy pictures! sexy videos! 100 baht!”

All in all, Phatpong is pretty tame stuff. What with the gawking families wandering around, it’s a tourist attraction more than a serious red-light district. There are definite neighborhoods in Bangkok where the real red-light happenings go down, but I’m okay with never witnessing those first-hand.

It was a fitting end to our week in Bangkok! The next day we were leaving on a train heading north to continue our Thailand adventures…

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Mar 01 2008

What’s on the Menu at Bangkok’s Chatuchuk Market?

Published by under Bangkok,Thailand

Assorted seafood on sticks at Bangkok's Chatuchuk MarketDonuts, vipers, and neckties. You’d really think you’d need to visit three separate stores to complete that shopping list. Not so in Bangkok’s (in)famous Chatuchuk Market. The best piece of advice that Lonely Planet ever gave us was to set aside an entire day for the market experience.

We arrived at 10:00 on Saturday morning to find an area the size of a fairground full of shoppers elbowing for room in the innumerable rows and columns of shop stalls. It is certainly madness, but there is a semblance of method. The grid is (mostly) categorized into clusters of similar stalls. To your left might be toy stalls, then clothes stalls, followed by an illegal cock-fighting ring. On the right, art stalls, food stalls, and pet stalls. Those last two overlap more than I’d prefer.

Speaking of tasty meals, I was intimidated by the food stalls at first, and not just because I’d already seen how cheap the puppies go next door. I was hesitant because none of the food stalls seemed to have any means – be it menu, sign, or pictures – to indicate what they serve. It seemed to me that, somehow, the customers simply know. But standing around awkwardly gawking outside the food establishments was quickly becoming tiresome and embarassing, so I finally selected a stall with table seating, and we plopped down in two empty chairs at a table full of diners. The waitress hurried over to take our order, and rattled off something in rapid-fire Thai. I shrugged and pointed at what the old lady across from me was eating. She looked pretty frail, and I figured if it wasn’t killing her, I could probably handle it.

My meal appeared quickly, and turned out to be some kind of noodle soup with white balls. The old lady whose meal I’d copied tried to assist me with the proper Thai method of meal preparation. Cackling toothlessly, she handed me different condiments from the center of the table, and motioned for me to add them to my soup. I recognized the soy sauce, chili peppers, and salt. By the way, isn’t soy sauce basically liquid salt? And before you assume that they are both present so that one can choose their preferred salting method, I’ll tell you that the Thais definitely pour both into their soup. Home-made MSG! A fourth condiment bottle contained a mystery element, which an impromptu taste test failed to identify. I added it to my soup anyway, at which point the old lady’s granddaughter revealed herself to be English speaking. “Fish sauce” she happily volunteered. I still can’t figure out what that means (is it FOR fish? FROM fish?) but it was a welcome addition to the cauldron. I must have looked like I was enjoying it, because when some Korean tourists replaced the old lady and granddaughter at our table, they ordered by pointing at what I was eating.

Bunnies in dresses at Bangkok's Chatuchuk MarketWe didn’t end up leaving Chatuchuk Market until sometime after 6:00 in the evening, when lots of the stalls started shutting down. Eight hours sounds like a long time to spend in the market, but we could have easily spent longer. Between the contagious frenzy of the Thai shoppers, and the novelty of being able to BUY THINGS after five penny-pinching months in Europe, the day flew by. The only exception was when we managed to get lost in the reptile aisles, deep in the bowels of the sprawling pet section. Squeezing my way through dark rows of grossly over-crowded snake and lizard terrariums, finding new horrors around every corner, and wondering if I’d ever see daylight again, I reflected that the speed of time seems to be relative, rather than absolute. More to come on this soon though – I’m working on something of a theory to summarily express this discovery.

Concerning the following day, I must here record an observation for the benefit of all interested foreign investors. I can personally attest to this shocking truth: on February 17, 2008, it rained in Bangkok. I’m sure you’ve been reading lately about Bangkok’s recent ground-breaking innovation: a suspended ceiling of smog over the city to protect its residents from precipitation, spy satellites, and nuclear warheads. A great deal of controversy surrounded the project from the outset, due in no small part to the mysterious motives of its biggest financial contributor, the reclusive and rarely-photographed Mr. Donut. While the project was denounced as “frivolous” by a spokesman for the League of Anti-Thailand Southeast Asian Nations (LATSEAN), several Western European capitals have expressed more than a passing interest in the progress of what has been widely dubbed Operation Sponge. I can’t speak to the cause of Sponge’s failure (although the upcoming press conference is sure to address it) but I can estimate that it was off-line for about one hour. While Sponge’s lead designer has continually stressed that the project’s lack of precedent will necessitate on-the-job troubleshooting for weeks and months after its launch, this system failure must still be regarded as a disappointment for the city, at a time when all eyes seem to be on Bangkok.

It only rained for an hour, but five minutes in that acid dip will surely leave you looking like the Joker, so we locked ourselves inside until the danger passed. In the middle of the afternoon, an abrupt end to the torrential rain signalled that Sponge was back on-line. I opened the window to breathe the comforting fumes that were already returning to the air. As I sat there watching Bangkok’s newest deformed denizens run dripping and screaming to their homes, I knew, for once, exactly what I had to do: get fried chicken.

We were in luck. While Europe would never tolerate such a foreign abomination as fried chicken, the Thais know how to eat. Thai fried chicken is a street food staple, and we’d even read about one restaurant known around town for its take on the down-home classic. We found the joint right down the street from the U.S. Embassy (location, location, location) and ordered up a big plate with lots of sticky rice on the side. With quality fried chicken like this so readily available, I can’t understand who’s keeping all of Bangkok’s 3-story KFCs in business. Which reminds me: the coveted award for Most Irrelevant U.S. Chain That Has Inexplicably Managed to Become the Starbucks of Thailand goes to… it’s a tie! Between KFC and the ubiquitous 7-11. The Thai government has famously cracked down on the drug trade, but you won’t hear the people complain. Their crack is the Colonel’s secret recipe.

Actually, I think that sums up that day. It rained and we ate fried chicken. Bangkok can drive you up the wall, but some days, you just gotta love it.

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