Chatuchak Market: organized insanity

Like any good gallivanting mother, Momalot wanted to buy a few stereotypically Thai trinkets for her brood back at home. In a moment of blind stupidity, I suggested that we check out Chatuchak Market. Chatuchak is located across town from us, which in Bangkok terms means that it’s basically in another galaxy. However, it is probably the biggest market in Thailand, and maybe even the world, so it seemed like a logical starting point for souvenirs. Armed with her water bottle, rickety wooden hand fan, and gimped umbrella, Momalot figured she was ready to brave the market.

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Pink, gimped umbrellas: so hot right now.

Turns out she underestimated the beast that is Chatuchak. The market is comprised of thousands of stalls laid out in a loosely structured grid. Some of the stalls are outside (as in the photo above), but many are inside, in cramped, sweaty rows that barely accommodate two Thais (let alone farangs) trying to pass each other. The whole joint is bathed in a certain ‘eau du garbage’, and the odd rat scampers over the open sewage system.

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But there are many extremely attractive artificial flowers to make up for these deficiencies.

The market does, however, contain basically every item known to man, from clothing to puppies to pirated DVDs, vegetable seeds, fish balls, and photos of the king. Basically, it’s the Thai version of a Walmart. We wandered for what felt like hours between row after row of stalls filled with t-shirts covered in obscene slogans. Good thing Momalot’s vision isn’t as keen as it once was. When it all became too much to process, we stopped for some tasty fried food. The best thing about Thailand/Chatuchak is that calories are never far away.

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Grease bombbbbbbs

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You can’t see it, but my handy styrofoam lunch container is catching the sweat that’s pouring down my face.

While Momalot could handle the rats, obscene t-shirts, and crowds, the heat really did her in. Something about 40C/100% humidity was just a little more than this gal from the Great White North could handle, and she quickly lost interest in shopping.

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The smile was a little forced.

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She tried to persuade these vendors to throw water on her (seriously), but they weren’t biting.

She finally said “screw the souvenirs. Let’s bounce.” Ok, so those weren’t her exact words, but you get the gist of it. After very little prodding, I relented, and we clambered back on the train for the ride back to our galaxy. Once we reached the southern echelons of Bangkok, we decided that our equilibrium could only be recovered by getting pedicures for our nasty, battle weary feet in an air conditioned mall. Don’t worry – we tipped.

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And this smile is real.

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My gorgeous feet against a stylish backdrop of a MEC backpack and a bored boyfriend.

With prettified, extremely exfoliated feet, I was able to more calmly contemplate the Chatuchak experience. I realized that I have visited it approximately every four months since arriving here, because that is how long it takes me to forget the heat and horror of it all. After four months, though, my memory involuntarily resets. So if you ask me in September where you you should go to buy souvenirs, I’ll probably recommend Chatuchak. And I’ll probably volunteer to take you there.

A Koh Chang New Year

There’s nothing Todd’s school likes better than celebrating the new year, and last week we had a week-long holiday to commemorate the third new year of the year (this is not a typo). First, we experienced the standard Western new year (“Comes after Christmas but before Valentine’s Day!”). Then, in February, we got to taste the joys of the Chinese new year and its accompanying week-long holiday. Finally, Thailand got it together, and rang in the new year in April. What can I say – if it translates into a holiday, I’m game to celebrate as many new years as the school wants.

With a week off work and a mother in tow, we thought it apropos to explore a bit more of this beautiful country. We asked friends for suggestions, and after discarding various ideas – “too expensive,” “too crowded,” “too stoned” – we settled on Koh Chang, an island located in the Gulf of Thailand. We packed up Momalot, and began the 8 hour trip to get to the island.

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After getting off the ferry, it took us a while to find a song-taew (a shared truck taxi) to take us to our guesthouse, as the island was packed with people celebrating the new year. They especially enjoyed celebrating into our vehicle with buckets of ice water. Much to my mother’s delight, we spent the song-taew ride either racing around blind corners at breakneck speed, or slowing down and getting doused. A great start to the holiday.

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Moist.

Turns out that arriving soaked was a foreshadowing of the days to come. For the first three days, it poured rain like a mothah on Koh Chang. The last time I’ve seen rain like that, I was up to my knees in the monsoon in the streets of Kolkata, trying to avoid kicking dead rats. So that’s how the island stays so green… Good thing it doesn’t take much to amuse Momalot. She spent her time teaching Todd how to play the recorder.

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Which I stole from him in order to demonstrate proper playing posture.

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And then Momalot stole it to soothe herself to sleep

Our guesthouse was lovely and quiet, but sorta in the middle of nowhere. This wasn’t a problem, except at mealtimes. We had two options for restaurants if we wanted to eat nearby, and one of them was filled with blazing neon lights, a blaring Thai soap opera, and staff that seemed completely disinterested in serving us. So we ate at the other option, which was quieter, and had some fun dogs hanging around. The staff managed to get our order wrong almost every time we ate there, but on the plus side, my mother learned a valuable lesson: do not attempt to customize your order when your waiter speaks limited/zero English.

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“I’d like our smoothies to be a proper rainbow, please.”

Fortunately, the rain let up on our last full day, and we took advantage of it. We hiked to a picturesque waterfall in one of the parks, and went for a swim. Unfortunately, many large European men wearing speedos had the same idea, but if you squinted hard enough, the scene was idyllic. It was nice to finally swim in water that was colder than bath water.

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This must have been the moment I spied the obese, semi-naked Russian man…

We also visited one of the island’s beautiful beaches, and ate a massive grilled meal by the water. Thai beaches tend to have tons of these restaurants – take a peek at the catch of the day, and choose what you want to eat. Just like at every buffet I have ever been to, I overdid it, and we ended up with a mountain of food. Honestly, though, this is a mountain I’m happy to climb any time.

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Somehow it all disappeared…

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The next day, it was time to head back to Banginkok, so we packed up the recorders and the mother, and hunkered down for another 8 hours of transit. It’s been rough getting back into the daily grind, but I feel at peace knowing that it will probably by the Kyrgyzstani new year soon, with an accompanying holiday.

Guest Post: Momalot reviews Thai toilets

Well, the madre came through on her threat promise, and wrote a thorough review of her favourite Thai toilet experiences thus far. Enjoy!

As a guest writer on this blog, and in keeping with the tone of refinement we have come to expect of its erudite offerings, I find myself addressing a matter requiring some delicacy, namely, that of bathrooms in Thailand. No matter where we live – and particularly if we are of the gentler gender – the location and condition of these essential services is never unconcerning.

Being a first-time world traveller last week, I had opportunity to compare the services and general conditions of Air Canada planes with those of Thai Airways. This seemed fitting, since one of these originated in my homeland, and the other in my travel destination. While both airlines offered adequate and even cordial service, Thai Airways outshone AC on a number of counts, including its bathroom. The Thai Air bathroom was brighter, prettier, cleaner, and just nicer than the ones on Air Canada. Thus, I might have been led to expect that this would be the case in bathrooms in Thailand in general.

Not so. Thai bathrooms can probably claim to be more interesting, but – in my recent and varied experience – none of the adjectives listed above could apply. To set the context (for Canadian readers, especially), I will describe the bathroom system here.

Here are features of almost every Thai bathroom I have visited.

1. One may not flush toilet tissue. There is a waste basket located next to the toilet as a receptacle for used paper products. This could be horrifying, except that…

2. There is usually a pressurized hose nozzle located next to the toilet, to be used in hygiene. (I think that in Europe it is called a bidet; here I have heard it called a bum gun.) This makes use of tissue nearly superfluous, except as a drying agent.

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A fine example of a bum gun

In my opinion, this approach to waste management is more ecologically sound, more hygienic, and generally more sensible than the practices common in N. America.

But there are some interesting variations on this theme.

In one road-stop bathroom, the toilet was located on a raised platform. Beside it was a 2’ x 2’ tub, into which drizzled a continuous stream of water from a copper pipe. A plastic bowl with a long handle floated in the tub. This was the flush system: do business, then ladle a dipper-full of water into the toilet to flush it. There was also the usual pressurized hose, but located on the lower floor, only almost-close-enough to reach the toilet. (Hmm… that might explain the general soaked condition of the whole stall when I entered it.)

One night we visited an open air restaurant which had its own bathroom! (Restaurants and other public places are not required to have a customer bathroom; however, facilities can usually be found somewhere nearby). This odd little room had a conventional flush toilet, no hose, and no useable sink: said receptacle was filled with beautiful red plastic flowers, artistically arranged. No problem: there was a shower here which could be used for hand washing. (A shower? Is that for the use of the cook, when things get too hot? Or for customers who come for ‘healthful healing practices’, as advertised outside the restaurant?)

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At the bus station in downtown Bangkok, washroom use was not free. We paid 3B each to a masked man seated in a tiny, dingy, glassed-in stall, squeezed ourselves through a narrow opening, and found ourselves in the facilities we needed. Not brilliant, but adequate.

The most picturesque bathroom was the outdoor privy located on the property of our beach bungalow. It was a“squatty” with a manual dipper-flusher, and is housed inside a palm-leaf-roofed shack.

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The bathroom of one of our vacation restaurants had a practical feature: each individual stall door had a slatted window inset, presumably for ventilation. The slats were angled, as in venetian blinds, except they were not adjustable. The only problem was that they were angled so that the people outside could see IN but the user could not see OUT!

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Peekaboo!

None of the bathrooms was stinky until the long bus ride home from our island vacation. In that vehicle there was a (non)flushing problem, so whenever anyone opened the door to the facilities the odor wafting through the bus reminded me of the “composting, natural” outdoor toilets typical in our Canadian mountain parks and other tourist areas. These require a bold, stoic approach to meeting daily needs!

I must stop, although I’m sure there are many undiscovered variations awaiting me. If anything really interesting in the field of bathrooms comes up in my travels, perhaps she will permit me another small entry…

Momalot Hits Thailand

Last Thursday, at 3am, the woman who personally spawned the miracle otherwise known as me entered the world Bangkok. She arrived 5 hours past her due date, which isn’t bad, considering how far she had to come.

Same gene pool and same penchant for light brown pleather purses

Corrine, aka ‘Momalot’, is one spry old(er) lady, but she hasn’t had the chance to do much travelling yet – turns out that raising 5 children is a bit of a drain on the ol’ free time.  We were really excited to be her tour guides on her first trip to Asia.

We started by introducing her to our favourite activity: eating.

Momalot’s arrival coincided with Songkran, the Thai new year celebration. This is a time of good luck and blessings, which sounds nice, except that luck is publicly expressed by throwing cold water on people in the streets, and smearing chalk/talc on their cheeks. This is fun on a hot day, but it gets a bit tiresome after awhile.

This is one blessed woman

After a few days of hiding in our apartment, we set off for Koh Chang, an island 6 hours from Bangkok.

Momalot made sure to wear a lifejacket for safety, as well as her favourite facial expression

No one accosted us with water or chalk when we got off the ferry, and we thought that we were finally home free. Unfortunately, our friendly island neighbours had other ideas. As our song-taew (open air shuttle) raced through hair pin turns, group after group of people heaved buckets of freezing water into the back of the vehicle, soaking us and all our stuff. What a friendly custom.

Trying to regain her composure with a little light music

It seems that the wettest part of Songkran is now over, and we are enjoying relaxing by the ocean. Momalot has promised to write a guest post for this blog – I have a feeling it will focus on Thai toilets, so get excited for a photo diary of ceramic bowls. What can I say – good taste runs in the family.

The (not so) Real Bangkok: a visit to Ancient City

Back in October, Todd ran a road race in a park called Ancient City (you can read the post here). It was a pretty rad park, but we didn’t see much of it – Todd was too busy hauling his ageing body around the course, and I was too busy screaming “go haaaaaard!!” at random, baffled British children, and checking out the classy port-a-potties. We decided we needed to go back and see the park properly, so this past Saturday, we grabbed Vera (main talent: being a dead ringer for the Korean chick on “Cloud Atlas”) and Therese (main talent: thought manipulation) and headed for the park.

I was a little taken aback by the hefty entrance fee, but I got over it when I saw the awesome bicycles that the fee included:

Built for comfort (the bicycles, I mean)

A crocodile bicycle: my dream come true

Ancient City (Thai: Mueang Boran) contains replicas of a variety of Thai historical sites. From the official website:

  • Just a visit to the Ancient City is comparable to a Thailand-round journey within a day.
  • The layout preserves the pattern of traditional Thai lifestyles, which is hard to behold nowadays

Our visit was pretty short (we only had 1.5 hours before we had to head back to the stix), so I figure we made a quarter Thailand-round journey. Because of our short time frame (and my shorter attention span), I didn’t read many signs, so don’t ask me for a history lesson. I can, however, vouch for the ambience, and the coolness factor – both were right on.

The temple provides the ambience, the farangs provide the, uh, coolness factor

There were also a lot of fun statues in the park, including these fighting elephants. I cannot imagine anything more terrifying in battle than being hauled off your perch by an angry, flailing trunk.

Hmmm. Maybe I’ll be safe if I hide by his massive, thundering foot.

This was another fun statue in the park – a bunch of horses and gods go to battle together. The best part of the statue was the artificial mist being released from the rocks.

So historical, it’s almost lost in the mists of time.

We bought fresh coconuts from a long-tail boat that was floating near the replica of a traditional village.

Peeping Tom Todd creeps on the villagers

I could handle living here

Unfortunately, Therese is almost as obsessed as Todd is with birds, and as soon as one flew into sight, they were all over it. Turns out Vera also likes a good chirp. They were throwing around terms like long-breasted-short-beaked-angry-footed-booby-clucker, so I meandered around and took a few more photos.

Not sure what it is, but it looks cool.

Also very cool. The gazebo looks really romantic from afar, but when you get closer, it’s full of carvings of angry, multi-headed snakes. Whatever does it for you.

I made Todd give me a ride on his bike to make up for the delay. This bike would be the ultimate family bike: you could put one kid on the front seat, and another in the basket. Now that’s what I call family time.

Unparalleled comfort AND style

Before we made it back to the entrance, I had to snap one last photo:

Vera looking picture perfect next to a replica of Ayutthaya

Ancient City filled us so full of Thai history (and birds) that we decided to give our culture-filled brains a rest, and went for Mexican food with our American compadres.

Hmmm. Not much history/culture going on here.

I’m guessing Ancient City will lure me back again, though – the combination of immaculate history and crocodile bicycles is just too much to resist. And besides, where else can you get a Thailand-round tour in just one day?