Thursday, 17 July 2014

markets, muay thai and mosaic

There's a rather special market just outside of Bangkok. It's on a railway track. 
Either side of the tracks, stalls are crowded into the cheap space, and are cleared when the warning sound signals an approaching train. 
Not the safest arrangement, but it seems to work... 

The heat was crazy even in the shade, and I felt so petty thinking of some of my gripes about inconveniences or conditions at work. 

We waved goodbye to Ex and took a rest for most of the afternoon, in preparation for the next thing on our list of Firsts - muay thai boxing

I've never been particularly interested in watching people batter each other, but muay thai reminded me more of sumo wrestling than the bloody violence I've seen in snatches on TV. Each match was preceded by the ritual, praying and sanctifying the space, like in sumo. Most of the contenders were small and young (some of them rather too young).  

The fights ranged from playful to intense.  At least one of them was carried off on a stretcher, knocked out cold. 

The champion was a steely-eyed, serious Russian. 

We grabbed some sweet pakoras and samosas from a street stall for dinner, and spent the rest of the night smoking shisha; trying to stop Annica from screaming at teh large rat that kept approaching our table; and swapping life advice. (My fave being Annica's suggestion to sign myself as Dr Patterson on unofficial forms for better service!) 

These are the only two pictures I took of Chatuchak market, which we visited on our last morning in Thailand. It's a 35 acre rambling warren of stalls, shops and alleyways, and I was simply too busy bargain hunting and eating my weight in crepes and coconut ice cream. We decided on a meeting point and resigned ourselves to solo wandering in the labyrinth. 

The last temple we visited was perhaps the most atmospheric: Wat Arun or Temple of the Dawn. Thunder clouds gathered as we made our way precariously to the top.  

We had an evening to kill before catching our flight home, and decided to balance all the street food with some class at the Banyan Tree Moon Bar. 

Bangkok looked a lot cleaner and more modern from so high up, G+T in hand. As dusk fell we spied a bunch of stalls in a park a few blocks away and made for it in search of dinner. 

The King!

We wandered into the park thinking it was just another night market, and queued up for food with everyone else. Maybe Japan has made us too trusting of strangers and accepting of random boons like free food and good intentions, but when we realised no one was paying we grabbed a bowl and lined up for our share of curry and rice. 

It was only when we started talking to a local journalist that we realised we'd stumbled into a monarchist political rally. It was only when we had watermelon juice running down our elbows that he said we should probably leave soon. Days later the country was in the grip of a military coup. Just when we were feeling like well-seasoned, knowing old travellers! 

We left our lovely hostel late at night, in for a journey full of regrets at accepting dubious free food. Nevertheless, it was a wonderful trip and just what I needed as a break from Japan. When I came back, I missed the flavours and the smells and the exotic chaos of Thailand, but it felt like coming home

Tuesday, 15 July 2014


We boarded our flight in Chiang Mai, flew through a lightning storm, and eventually fell into bed at our hostel in the early hours. The next morning we ventured out into the neighborhood, finding mainly highways with piles of garbage under bridges and alleys full of thumb-sized cockroaches... However, after some street food by the road we met up with Ex ("for excellent and expert"), our tour guide for the day, and hopped in a taxi to Wat Pho. 

In the complex is the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. I'd seen statues of the Buddha in a sitting or standing pose, but never reclining like this. The scale was quite literally awe-some. 

The heat was sweltering and completely solid, unlike Chiang Mai. The sweat rolled off us as we stepped from shade to shade. 

Next we visited the Grand Palace, in the same area. I wasn't prepared for the extent of the opulence and grandeur, especially in contrast to the tiny, hot rooms we saw families living in near our hostel. We wandered between terraces, temples, tombs and buildings, all covered in gold and mosaic, glinting in the hazy, dense heat.  

I loved experiencing a completely new architectural style and aesthetic and soaking it all in. After a quick lunch we toured the river for a while, spying gold roof tops and ornate tomb tips peeking above dockyards. 

With Ex, our lovely tour guide, who referred to us all as "dears". 

That evening we visited the Sala Chalermkrung Royal Theatre, to see a performance of a kohn masked dancing. The story is taken from the Ramiken, which is Thailand's national epic and itself derives from the indian Ramayana. 60 dancers with beautiful costumes depicted the monkey god Hanuman becoming Phra Chakri's devotee. 

My only point of reference for anything similar was this sequence in The King and I, so I was in awe of the gorgeous clothes, dancing style, elaborate sets and strangely poetic translation on the digital screen above the stage. 

With the cast after the show
We finished the evening at the infamous Khao San Road, and in search of drinks were accosted by stalls piled high with fried insects, offers of a 'ping pong show' (let your imagination run wild) and a lot of sweaty, sunburned Englishmen. Not ideal. 

Our next adventure was in search of the Damnoen Saduak floating market. Ex met us again and drove us out of the city, stopping on the way at river-side villa to show us coconut products being made. 

Once there, we hailed a canoe and spent the morning eating spring rolls in chilli sauce, coconut pancakes, mango sticky rice and all manner of fruit smoothies. The warm wood of the boat, the sweet pungency of the fruit, the blunt, earthy smells of soil and foliage - it all felt kind of intoxicating after the delicate, subtle smells and tastes of Japan.  

Coconut pancakes
Afterwards Ex bought us sweet, dry coconut wafers and helped us haggle over harem pants and spices. Even writing this is making my mouth water!