Sunday, June 24, 2018

Bangkok's Khaosan Road, and Temple Ruins in Ayutthaya - Part II: Pom the Khaosan Road Bar Girl & Snake Encounter at Wat Phra Si Sanphet

[I dedicate this blog post in memory of Anthony Bourdain, who to our great shock and sorrow decided to leave us far too soon to explore parts truly unknown. A short tribute to Anthony appears at the bottom of this post.]

(Continued from Part I) Having thus completed most of my souvenir gift shopping for friends and family back home in one fell swoop (and also helping the Akha People in the process), I stroll back up Khaosan Road in the direction of Chakkrapong (Chakrabongse) Road junction, across from which is the Wat Chanasongkhram Ratchaworamhawihan temple that is next on my list of nearby sights to see. As I pass Soi Rambutri, I hear bass-heavy dance mix music echoing down the covered alley and gather that Susie Pub, the bar that is located next to Marcopolo Hostel (my budget, no-frills, 250 Baht a night accommodations for a few more days in Bangkok before taking the night train up to Chiang Mai) is now open for business. I recalled seeing the Susie Pub sign as I walk in to check out the rooms there during my search for cheap accommodations earlier this morning, but given that the steel roll-up doors were down at the time, I didn't realize that it was a dance club instead of just a regular pub, and wonder if the noise will be an issue when I finally call it a night.

Pom the Bar Girl, and the Picture She Requested be Retaken
Pom's Back Tattoo
Pom's Retake Photo...and Photo Fee
Earlier I had passed a small bar/café up the road that had some outdoor seating near the sidewalk and a Thai musician seated near the corner playing an electrified acoustic guitar through an amp and singing classic rock tune covers, so I figured I would circle back and, if he were still performing, stop in for a beer. As I approach the establishment I no longer heard live music being played, and I am just about to head back to the Marcopolo to get some rest ahead of my Ayutthaya temple ruins daytrip the next morning, when something catches my eye and piques my curiosity. A bar a couple of doors up the street from my originally intended destination has its entrance located on the side of the building, set back a distance from the sidewalk, with the exterior wall containing the bar's entrance sculpted into a large radius curve flanked by a inclined section of walkway leading back to a courtyard with a few floors of other business establishments. Built into the curved wall next to the entrance was at thru-wall rectangular slot, about 2 feet in height and extending in perhaps an eight foot arc length, similar to the open takeaway window that connects the kitchen with the dining area of a restaurant so that the orders can be picked up and taken to the customer's tables, with the interior wall visible through the opening in the wall bathed in soft amber lighting. But it isn't this particular architectural feature that has attracted my attention and slowed my pace to a near-standstill.

Framed within the odd curved opening through the wall is a slender Thai bar girl dressed in a tight, sleeveless black leather top. Her long hair, natural black near the top blending into red and brown along the course of its length, hangs at a angle as her tilted head rests on the loosely-formed fist of her right hand as her corresponding elbow resting on the base of the rectangular opening, with her left forearm similarly resting palm-down on the base parallel to her chest. She is talking with two Western male tourist who after a moment appear to briefly glance at each other, then look back to her and give a shake their heads before walking on. As they take their leave, she glances up in my direction and makes eye contact with me, at which time she gives me a welcoming smile and rotates her left hand and with her raised index finger, invites me over with a slow wagging jester back towards herself combined with a playful little cocking of her head. I walk forward and bend my knees slightly to bring myself to her eye level. "Sawahdee krap", I greet her in Thai as I form the socially-polite 'wai' gesture with my palms brought together vertically/index fingertips brought near the tip of the nose with a slight bow of the head, to which she giggles and replies with the corresponding "Sawahdee kha." and respectful 'wai' gesture to me. Given her facial features and lighter complexion, I'm thinking that she may be ethnic Chinese, or possibly a mix of Thai and one of the ethnic minorities from northern Thailand, or perhaps even a mix of Thai and Korean bloodlines given the thin almond shape of her eyes framed by thin brown eyebrows peeking through her banks and light, pastel blue eye shadow. We exchange in a bit of the typical introductory small talk (Where're you from? How long are you here? First time in Thailand?), during which I learn her monosyllable nickname (customary in Thailand) is Pom. Her voice has that cigarette and whiskey-rough, Kim Carnes quality to it, and as we talk she rises up (apparently she was leaning down to be able to talk through the rectangular opening in the wall) and comes around the corner to stand as we continue the conversation, revealing her full height (tall for a Thai girl) which is accentuated by how slim she is. As she turns, I catch a quick glimpse of what looks to be an ornate back tattoo. For a second, her height combined with the quality of her voice has me wondering if she's a katoey (ladyboy), though I don't see the hint of an Adam's Apple (which I've heard can be addressed with some sort of laser ablation technique or something), and as she is not likely a katoey I don't want to offend her by accusing her of being one if she's not.

Opening small talk now dispensed with, she gets down to business and dials up the charm a bit. "So honey, are you looking for a massage tonight? A full body massage upstairs is only 1,000 Baht...", which I assume would be one offering the option of the 'happy ending' at some point for an additional tip. I thank her for the offer (which is actually my first such offer received in Southeast Asia, something that I had not encountered in my two prior trips) but tell her that I'm not interest. "Are you sure? Where are you staying, honey?", is her response. When I tell her that I'm staying at the Marcopolo Hostel, she gives another little tilt of the head with downcast eyes and a slight pursing of her glistening red lips as if to convey mock disappointment. "Oh honey, Marcopolo doesn't let you take girls back to your room. You sure you don't want anything?" Thinking that the guys back at work will likely get a kick out of hearing about this encounter on the streets of exotic Bangkok, I ask if I can perhaps take a photo of her to show to friends back home. She considers my request for a second then replies, "Honey, if you want to take pictures of me, it will cost you 100 Baht." At USD $2.50, given the current 40 Thai Baht to the US Dollar conversion rate, I tell her that's a bit steep to take perhaps a couple of pictures, she gives my comment another second of consideration, and then replies, "Okay, honey. One picture of me for free." She walks a few paces up the short segment of inclined walkway to the entrance of the back courtyard with the other small business establishments, then turns to face me. "Okay, go...", she says, though when the double-strobe camera flash goes off, she reflexively shuts her eyes in response. "Oh, Honey! That picture's not gonna come out, 'cause I closed my eyes! I'll look terrible! Take another one; take another one..." I get closer and prepare to take the replacement shoot, when her smile diminishes some and she becomes a bit more businesslike in tone. 

"Honey, I said one picture, but now you're taking another one, so...100 Baht?" She raises her hand with an upturned palm as the sweet smile returns and the charm is dialed back up a notch, hopeful that she's won this round. Considering that I would like to have a picture of her back tattoo in addition to a better photo of her face and form-fitting black leather dress, I smile and say, "Ohh-kayee, you win." I reach into the pocket of my cargo pants and fish out two 50 Baht note, which I politely extend to her with two hands, palms up, as is the custom in East and Southeast Asia. "No, honey, you place it...", she says as she teases her fingers of both hands beneath the taught band of her sleeveless black leather dress and rotates her hands down and outward at the wrist, creating an amble gap between the dress and her skin, exposing the top portions of her small breasts. I slip the ends of the two 50 Baht notes in until they bottom out, at which point she settles the elastic top of the garment back into place, securing the notes like a money clip. "Thank you, honey," she says as I back up to frame the retake photo, then have her turn so that I can get a picture of her intriguing tiger, bamboo stalk and orchid stem tattoo to both show the folks back home and also to have some mementos of the interesting encounter. As I am about to take my leave, she extends a final proposition to me that makes my brief encounter with Pom all the more memorable. "Umm, we go upstairs now and you take naked pictures of me? Only 1,000 Baht..." To this, I smile and chuckle to myself, telling her thanks but no thanks, and that it would be very awkward trying to get the roll developed at the local Payless, Rite Aid or photo Drive-Up (plus, with my luck/karma, she could possibly turn out to be a katoey!) "Okay, honey; maybe next time..." she says as she give me a quick hug and heads back into the bar, at which point I return to the Marcopolo with likely a bit of a bemused smile on my face.

The encounter with Pom was definitely a novelty, something I hadn't experienced during my first two trips to Burma and Singapore, despite the hotel during our first stay in Singapore being across the street from the notorious Orchard Towers, one of the city-state's legal 'Designated Red Light Areas'. By the end of my 17-day stay in Thailand, there would be a number of other - decidedly more explicit - solicitations that I would politely declined, including an offer of a threesome with two very attractive, black string bikini-clad and numbered badge-wearing Thai bar girls during the course of one of those infamous, often-talked about ping pong ball 'stage shows' at a club in Bangkok's Patpong red light district (which I covered in an earlier blog post intended for mature audiences due to adult subject matter; reader discretion is advised) similar to the cell phone photos shown during the closing credits of The Hangover Part II.

As I make my way up Soi Rambutri alleyway to my hostel, Susie Pub next door is rather lively and kicking out the dance beats quite loudly, with patrons filing in and out of the club. I make a note to go in to check the place out before checking out of the Marcopolo. As I take the stairs up to my room, I can still hear the bass end of the dance mix reverberating through the hall. When I enter my room, I quickly find that the noisy air conditioner (which I have left running) will be the least of my problems as I attempt to get a decent night's sleep tonight. The sound of the window rattling in time to the electronic kick drum and low sustained bass notes is drowning out the rattling and whining of the air conditioner. Luckily, I do have some foam earplugs saved from the EVA Air flight over from SFO to BKK via a four hour layover in Taipei (USD $680 RT in Economy Plus seating, at the time, in the front lower deck of a Boeing 747 with more leg room and seat width than Economy, and some pretty decent Taiwanese-Chinese cuisine), which help only a little bit. I can't really hear the high and mid-frequencies of what's being played, so it's hard to tell what's been sampled in the mix, except for instances where the ear worm portion of the theme from the popular 1960's American TV sit-com 'I Dream of Jeanie', starring Larry Hagman and Barbara Eden, has be sampled and worked into the set, which makes me giggle whenever it pops up in the mix as I struggle to get some sleep. I seem to become a bit desensitized to the distraction and dose off and on, until sometime after 2 AM I wake up and only hear the lower-volume rattle and droning hum of the air conditioner.

In the morning I swing by for a quick breakfast from one of Khaosan Road's 7 Eleven locations in the form of black coffee and some cellophane-wrapped marbled pound cakes that are taste and cheap, then head back up the road to the pickup point for the Ayutthaya Day Trip near the Songserm office. It turns out to be a group of ten, plus a driver and a local guide, and after showing our photo ID's to the guide standing next to the right-side sliding door and having our names checked against the list that she has clamped to her clipboard, we pile into the white van and while belting up begin introducing ourselves to one another. Our guide does a quick final head count and confirm that all are accounted for on her clipboard, after which we start the nominal one-hour, 47.5 mile drive to Ayutthaya that takes us out onto Ratchadamnoen Klang Road and pass the Democracy Monument before following a northeasterly route through Bangkok and then pick up Highway 1 / Phahon Yothin Road north to Ayutthaya. (Note that the quoted 'nominal' one-hour drive time excludes traffic, for which in Bangkok is world famous for having some of the worst of around, so it's conservative to assume at least 30 minutes should be added to the nominal drive time estimates when the route involves transit through the city itself.) Once outside of Bangkok and beyond the surrounding urban sprawl, the view soon changes to include stretches of rice paddies and crop fields among the passing rural homes, stands of coconut palms, small towns, and the occasional Wat or chedi visible in the distance. Our guide, seated in the front passenger seat, turns to look over her shoulder at us and provides a quick overview of the day's itinerary and then begins to fill us in on a bit of Ayutthaya's history.

The Ayutthaya Kingdom spanned from 1351 to 1767, with the former Siamese kingdom’s capital city taking the name Ayutthaya. The kingdom had friendly relations with foreign traders from Asia (Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese, Indians, and Persians) and by the 17th Century, also Europe (Portuguese, English French, Spanish and Dutch). In the 16th Century, the Ayutthayan capital was described by foreign traders as the biggest and most wealthy city of the East. By 1500, the kingdom’s reach extended to include city-states in the Malay Peninsula, Burma and Cambodia. Ayutthaya’s main religion was Theravada Buddhism, though the political and cultural systems also incorporated elements of the Hindu faith, in addition to the ‘Satsana Phi’ animistic belief in spirits associated with buildings, territories, natural places and phenomena, and also protective ancestral spirits and protective deities (the influence of which can be attested to by the number of small, colorful pedestal-mounted ‘Spirit Houses’ embellished with offerings of fruit, flowers, small cups of water and burning incense sticks seen throughout modern Thailand today). Architecturally, the Buddhist temples of Ayutthaya fall into the two broad categories of stupa (chedi)-styled solid temples, and the prang-styled temples which feature a corn-cob like tower ranging from 15 to 40 meters in height, which are representative of the Hindu faith’s mythical Mount Meru, with Buddhist relics often enshrined in vaults built within the structure. The latter category is similar in style to the Khmer temples (such as Angkor Wat, which features a large central prang tower ringed by four smaller prang towers) that are seen in Cambodia. The Ayutthaya Kingdom engaged in numerous wars with the Burmese over its reign, with the kingdom finally falling with the sacking of the capital of Ayutthaya in 1767. The modern-day city of Ayutthaya (officially Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya) occupies 5.73 square miles and as of 2014 had a population of 52,952 residents. From Bangkok, the city can be reach by car, by boat via the Chao Phraya River, and by train departing from Bangkok's Hua Lamphong Station.

The Grounds of Bang Pa-In Royal Palace

Roughly 11 miles south of the city of Ayutthaya, we make our first stop at the Bang Pa-In Royal Palace, also known as the Summer Palace. The palace lies beside the Chao Phraya River in the town of Ban Len. It was originally constructed in 1632 by King Prasat Thong, but because of disuse became overgrown by the end of the 18th century. In the mid-19th century King Mongkut began a restoration effort of the site, and most of the present buildings were constructed between 1872 and 1889 by King Chulalongkorn. We visit one of the temples on the palace grounds and it is interesting to see that the structure’s exterior and interior (at least the one we’ve entered), as does one of the shrines out on the palace grounds that we pass, reflects an eclectic mix of Thai and European Gothic design elements. Our stay at Bang Pa-In is brief, and we are soon walking back to the van. As we get back on the road, our guide tells us that our itinerary calls for a roughly 20-minute cruise up the Chao Phraya River by long-tail boat en route to the next temple we will visit, after which we will dock and meet up again with the van for a short drive to the temple ruins of Wat Phra Si Sanphet. She adds that for those who would prefer not to travel by boat, they can remain in the van when we arrive at the dock a short distance ahead to board our long-tail boat, and drive to the ruins instead. One of the male group members in his mid-twenties takes the guide up on her offer, saying that he has already spent about a month and a half traveling around Southeast Asia, and has had more than his share of boat rides during that time.

Long-tail Boats on the Chao Phraya River Near Bang Pa-In Royal Palace

Within minutes we arrive at a dock where several canopied and colorfully-painted long-tailed boats are anchored. Their slender pointed bows arch upwards such that the tips, from which strings of garland and strips of colored hang (perhaps as a sign that blessings have been bestowed upon the boat and its pilot, or maybe a symbolic offering to appease or pay tribute to the ‘Satsana Phi’ spirit of the river?), sit high above the waterline and the rest of the boat. The dock is located along a narrow fork of the Chao Phraya River that parallels the main body of the river to the west and creates a slender island roughly in the shape of a dagger with the top of its handle in the upstream direction, and a light house positioned at its downstream tip. After boarding the long-tail boat, we are pushed back from the dock and slowly drift out into the narrow channel as the stern, coaxed by some paddle strokes along the port side, begins to gradually slew towards the downstream direction. Our pilot then sharply pulls the handle of the starter cable towards him and the long-tail outboard motor, whose long drive shaft is angled as such that the propeller is still above the waterline, sputters to life with a visible puff of white exhaust. The propeller, rotating lazily at as the motor idles, is then lowered into the water as the pilot slews the long-tail and gooses the throttle to point us towards the center of the channel, and we are at last on our way, getting another glimpse of the Bang Pa-In Royal Palace as we motor by. The channel provides us with passing views of stilted riverside houses that remind me of those seen along the khlongs (canals) which branch off from the Chao Phraya to extend into the various neighborhood of Bangkok and are used by the locals as avenues of waterborne transit, earning the city the moniker of ‘The Venice of the East’. We pass a short khlong that branches off to the right at a 90 degrees that is flanked by houses and spanned by a small road bridge, and after following a bend around the northern tip of the dagger-shaped island, we rejoin the main body of the river for the remainder of the cruise upstream to view the temple ruins of Ayutthaya. This part of the Chao Phraya River is fairly calm relative to the arc of the river extending from Wat Arun Temple north to the junction with Khlong Bangkok Noi, which I had transited during my first long-tail boat ride in Thailand some days earlier, where the chop resulting from the combination of the river current and the criss-crossing wakes of the numerous passing long-tail boats, water taxis and towed barges was nausea-inducing. Along the way, we pass other long-tail boats, a few larger motorized boat traveling abreast sharing the task of pulling three loaded barges daisy-chained together in a single-file line upstream in tow, and more semi-rural riverine scenery that becomes more city-like as we follow the river's course into the city of Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya, where we soon dock and rejoin our driver, guide and water-weary fellow traveler, who are awaiting for us near the jetty in our tour van with the air conditioner running as we walk up.

The ruins of Ayutthaya's Wat Phra Si Sanphet

The Three Chedis of Wat Phra Si Sanphet

We drive a short distance through the city and soon arrive at our first Ayutthaya temple ruin site. Wat Phra Si Sanphet (translated as the "Temple of the Holy, Splendid Omniscient") was the holiest and most beautiful temple on the site of the former Royal Palace in ancient capital of Ayutthaya, whose construction was ordered by King Ramathibodi I in 1350 and was completed in 1351. A new Royal Palace was built to the north of the first one by King Borommatrailokanat in 1448, with the old palace grounds being converted into a holy site. In 1492 King Ramathibodi II, the son of King Ramathibodi I, had two chedis erected on the site of Wat Phra Si Sanphet to bury the ashes of his father, King Borom Trailokanath, and his brother, King Borommaracha III. In 1499 a viharn (hall of worship) called “Vihara Luang” (Royal Chapel) was built on site. King Ramathibodi II gave orders for a gigantic Buddha statue to be cast and installed in Wat Si Sanphet. The Buddha statue was 16 meters high, with a core made of bronze that was covered in a layer of gold (approximately 343 kilograms worth), giving it a total weight of approximately 64 tons. The statue, called “Phra Si Sanphetdayan”, was the main object of veneration within the royal chapel and took over three years to cast and complete. A third chedi was built under King Borommaracha IV in 1592, and the temple was later renovated in the 1740s under King Borommakot. The three chedis reflect the classic Ceylonese (Sri Lankan) design style in which the shape is reminiscent of a bell. Additional halls and facilities were built on raised platforms around the main chedi terrace, with additional small chedis built within the temple compound perimeter wall. The Wat Phra Si Sanphet was the temple of the royal family and was used exclusively for royal ceremonies, with no monks living there. In 1767, the Burmese invaded and conquered the capital of Ayutthaya, resulting in the extensive destruction and looting of numerous temples and buildings, including the Wat Phra Si Sanphet. Wooden temples and buildings were set on fire and gilded Buddha statues melted in order to recover the gold, with many of the heads of the temple’s carved stone Buddha statues cut off during the sacking. The three chedis were destroyed in the process, but restoration work on them began in 1956.

Our driver parks the van near a modern-looking Wat building and we file out of the van as our guide does a running head count. Once assembled, we begin to walk along the southern flank of the Wat’s three iconic chedis, or stupas as they are called in Burma, while our guide tells us of the Wat’s history, reiterating several times that the Burmese sacked the Kingdom of Ayutthaya in 1767, looting the shrines and cutting the heads off of countless Buddha statues. We continue strolling among some temple ruins that lie to the east of the three chedis as we learn a bit more history, after which she tells the group that we will have about 20 minutes to explore the temple compound on our own before meeting back at the more modern temple near the southwest corner of the compound.

A Tree Snake & Chameleon That Nearly Fall on Me While at Wat Phra Si Sanphet 
I continue in a counter-clockwise fashion around the ruins (although traditionally, the grounds of the temple and pagoda compounds are normally walked in a clockwise direction, as I was told during my first visit to Rangoon’s Shwedagon Pagoda), stopping periodically to bend, kneel or squat as required to position myself so as to frame a satisfying composition. Walking the eastern flank of the royal temple’s compound, I pass the Royal Monument of King Rama 1 that lies in a clearing flanked by trees just beyond the main temple grounds to the east. Rounding the northeast corner of the compound, I come upon the ruins of a structure known as Hall Thong and pause to frame a few shots of it. Near the northwest corner of it, I back up near a row of trees behind me to frame a bit more of the structure, and just as the camera’s shutter clicks to capture the shot followed by the low, buzzing whirl of the 35mm film roll advancing to the next available frame, I hear the sudden rustling of leaves and a dull, hollow thud somewhere above me that is decidedly out of place with the ambient sounds of the compound. The rustle of leaves continues, increasing in volume as if the source of the sound is coming ever-closer, as does yet another dull thud like something impacting a tree branch and the snapping of a twig, which causes me to lower my camera and look directly above me into the canopy formed by the line of trees. I hear a final, more solid and dulcet thud of an object with a bit of weight to it hitting the ground right behind me, followed by the muted flopping sounds of something alive writhing on the ground. Startled, I quickly turn and look at my feet to a green tree snake of some sort attempting to wrap itself around a struggling chameleon-type lizard.

This chance ‘Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom’-type encounter catches me by pleasant surprise, and I glance at my watch and figure that I can stay here and witness this life-and-death struggle and snap a few photos of it for about 5 minutes before I’ll have to leave to be able to complete a photo stroll around the compound’s perimeter (at a now-quickened pace) and still be back in time to meet up with the others to continue the guided portion of my Ayutthaya Day Trip. I squat at perhaps arm’s length of the two wrestling reptiles and snap the first shot, then watch as the snake slowly gathers its body inward and repositions it to coil around the kicking chameleon to immobilize it, and wonder if it will be able to actually begin dining on the lizard before I have to leave. As the natural cycle-of-life drama unfolds, I’m joined by what appears to be some locals (a Thai man and woman, an auntie that I assume is a relative, and two younger boys) out for a stroll among the temple ruins, as I don’t see any camera with them and they are in sandals verses durable walking shoes more appropriate to touring on holiday. The two boys come in close and squat down to get a better look at the action, pointing at the reptiles and speaking to each other in Thai as the others watch on in amusement. I snap another shot, then turn to look back over my shoulder at the assumed husband, wife and auntie. I point to the snake and now-entwined lizard and with a little shrug to acknowledge the inevitable nature of life, in which (per Buddhist philosophy) the concepts of suffering and impermanence are essential truths, and say, “Karma…” To this, their eyes light up and smiles come to their faces as the auntie nods her head and repeats, “Karma…” followed by a shared chuckle among the three. Seeing that my time is up and the snake is nowhere near ready to take the lizard’s head into his mouth (which was the shot I was looking to capture), I take my final photo of the pair and continue on to cover the rest of the compound and snap at least a few more temple ruin photos before the scheduled meet-up with our guide and the others.

The Present-Day Wat at the Site of Wat Phra Si Sanphet

Near the northwestern section of the compound I pass some rather atmospheric settings in which the temple ruins and the remains of damaged large stone Buddha are located beneath the canopy formed by some trees. When I arrive at the meeting point, the rest of the group is assembled at the west end of the compound in the vicinity of the modern white-washed, red and gold Wat, and talking amongst themselves as the await our guide to return from the van, with the tech-savvy travelers that had already switched from 35mm film to digital cameras sharing small color LCD previews of their photos with each other. One of them is quite excited as he tells of a great capture he’s managed of one of the white-washed chedis in the compound, along the slender conical side of which a green tree snake similar to the one wrapped around a lizard that nearly hit me as it fell out of the tree can be seen trying to slither up on the camera’s LCD screen. Everyone agrees that the picture is in fact quite cool, and after I recount my experience with the falling snake and lizard, they comment that it’s too bad that I wasn’t using a digital camera, as they would love to see the preview photos of it.

An Elephant Riding Field Near Wat Phra Si Sanphet

A Vendor Woman Near the Elephant Riding Field
Our guide soon rejoins the group, at which time she tells us that we leave the Wat Phra Si Sanphet compound and walk to see some nearby point of interest, and then will be met by the van and taken to a restaurant for lunch, followed by visits to some additional temple ruins. We walk for perhaps five minutes and approach what appears to be some sort of elephant riding field. At the near corner of the open stretch of turf are a couple of elevated platforms with stair steps to allow the ‘mahouts’ (the ‘drivers’ who command and steer the elephants, commonly by using a long stick with a single nail through the end to prod the elephant with a quick tap of the nail’s point to the neck or shoulder, so that it can feel the poking sensation through its thick skin), who sit atop red-painted wooden ‘howdah’ benches secured to the animal’s backs with ropes, and any additional riders/passengers to mount the elephants. There are at least ten elephants with mounted riders standing in the foreground, and the riders wear what looks to be ceremonial dress comprised of red, long-sleeve coats and pants with yellow stripes on the cuffs and black turbans. The elephant’s are draped with large red and yellow cloth that form a barrier between the wooden howdah bench and the animal’s skin, and each howdah is mounted with a tassel-fringed, red and yellow umbrella to shield the riders. The ceremonial garb makes me think that the riders and elephants may be doing a dress-rehearsal for some upcoming holiday procession or festival, and that we may have arrived during their break time. I later learn that the elephants and their mahouts can be hired by tourists to view the ruins of Ayutthaya in regal style.

We walk back to the van in the Wat Phra Si Sanphet parking lot, and as we get in and seatbelt up our guide tells us that we will stop for a set-menu lunch at a local restaurant before continuing our tour of the temple ruins. We head back in the direction of the Chao Phraya River and a few turns later pass over one of the river’s numerous khlongs, where the view out the window soon begins to take on a more rural feeling. The van pulls to the right shoulder and comes to a stop in front of a small roadside restaurant. As we exit the vehicle our guide tells us that we will stop for a 30-minute lunch, but that she and the driver will be sitting at a separate table. An aproned waitress greets us and with a wave of her hand directs us to a table large enough to accommodate our group. Soon after we are seated, a family-style lunch (included in the cost of the tour) is brought out that includes stir-fried noodles with pork and vegetables, combination fried rice, a mixed vegetable dish and (much to my pleasant surprise) a large plate of gai pad prik sod. This popular wok or skillet stir-fried Thai dish, normally served over steamed white jasmine rice, can be quite spicy, though I assume the chili heat has been dialed down a bit to ‘farang level’. The dish consists of thinly-sliced boneless chicken, sliced onions, chopped scallions, chopped garlic, dried hot chili peppers, sugar, oyster sauce, fish sauce (‘nam pla’) chicken broth and oil (chopped cashews option). It is very tasty, with a nice chili kick but not overly spicy. The choice of beverage is hot jasmine tea or water, with a bottle of beer an option at our own expense. We casually chat as we eat, and during the course of the conversation it turns out that 80% of the tour group is either pursuing a Pre-Med degree, is in Med School, or has just started their three (or more)-year Residency Training Program at a hospital or university medical center (myself excluded, of course). After finishing off a dessert of assorted tropical fruits (with the indigenous Thai Monthong durian, the infamous smelly King of Fruits, being excluded from the selection in deference to those farang tourists not already familiar with the fruit), our guide and driver reappear and usher us back to the van to continue the tour.

During the course of our lunch, the mix of hazy sunshine and patches of blue sky that we had enjoyed earlier has given way to scattered gray clouds and thin overcast, which dims the sun's glare and somewhat lessens the damp tropical heat. We turn onto Phukhao Thong Road, which runs parallel to, and offset from, the Chao Phraya River's northern bank, and as we pass through the village of Phukhao Thong the view out the windows quickly becomes more rural and wetlands-like in character. Out the left widow, waterfront country-style homes dot the high ground between the road and the near bank of the river, whose waters encircle the islets in fingerlike fashion and small ponds ringed by mats of reeds. Out the right window, rice paddies and open wetlands extend outwards from the passing foreground of reeds, wild grasses and leafy trees, with the tall whitewashed spire of a chedi visible against the backdrop of clouds and overcast skies ahead in the distance, which is the next stop on the day's itinerary.

Chedi Phukhao Thong, with 3 Visitors on the Upper Terrace (Left)

Locals Villagers at the Base of Chedi Phukhao Thong

The View from the Upper Terrace of Chedi Phukhao Thong

The 50-meter tall Chedi Phukhao Thong (Phu Khao Thong), in its current Thai-style form, was built during the reign of King Boromakot (1733–1758) as part of a restoration/rebuilding effort on the base of a pre-existing chedi that had fallen into disrepair. The original chedi was built in 1569 by the Burmese King Bayinnaung of Hongsawadi (the former ethnic Mon Kingdom that is now part of southeastern Myanmar) to commemorate his victory after having taken the capital of Ayutthaya. The large chedi (referred to as a 'stupa' by the Burmese), whose design reflected the Mon architectural style with a square foundation, was built next to the Buddhist temple of Wat Phukhao Thong. A steep stairway allows visitors to climb as far a landing halfway up the chedi, which offers views of surrounding rice fields, the adjacent Wat, and Ayutthaya in the distance. Our guide fills us in on the history of the chedi as we walk from the van to the base of the chedi, reiterating how the Burmese sacked Ayutthaya in 1767, and again how terrible they were to actually break off the heads of the Buddha statues in the process. Given her rather indignant tone, I get the feeling that our guide still holds a grudge against Burma/Myanmar for bringing down the Kingdom of Ayutthaya, though there is a long history of belligerence and bloodshed between the two countries that culturally runs deep on a  subconscious level for both sides, likely coloring the opinions that each side has for the other to some extent. Upon hearing her latest interjection of the "See What the Burmese Did to Us" theme, I can't help but chuckle to myself as a joke told alternately by both Thais and Burmese by employing a simple swap of the nationality in the punchline comes to mind. It goes like this: "If one is ever out walking in the jungle and encounters a cobra and a (Burmese or Thai), kill the (Burmese or Thai) first!" This joke is likely told often in good nature between 'mixed-by-marriage' Thai-Burmese family members at gatherings, and one that I have heard on numerous occasions as extended family.

There have been several major military conflicts involving full-scale invasions between Burma and Thailand through the years. The first two Burmese–Siamese Wars of 1547–1549 and 1594–1605 were fought between the Toungoo Dynasty of Burma and the Ayutthaya Kingdom of Siam, with Siam coming out victorious in both wars. The third Burmese–Siamese War of 1765–1767 was fought between the Konbaung Dynasty of Burma (Myanmar) and the Ban Phlu Luang Dynasty of the Ayutthaya Kingdom of Siam, with the sacking of the capital of Ayutthaya and the ending the four-century-old Ayutthaya Kingdom in April of 1767 making the war a decisive victory for Burma. The Burmese victory would prove to be short-lived though, as Chinese invasions of the homeland would require a complete withdrawal of Burmese military forces by the end of 1767, and by 1770 a new Siamese dynasty would emerge that would reunify Siam. The Burmese–Siamese War of 1785–1786 was fought between the Konbaung dynasty of Burma and the Chakri dynasty of the Rattanakosin Kingdom of the resurgent Siam, with Siam being victorious in what would be the last full-scale invasion of Siam by Burma. By the 19th century, Burma became a British colony, thus ending the possibility of further Burmese invasions of Siam. During the Burma Campaign of World War II, Thailand sent the newly-formed Phayap Army to occupy the Shan State and Kayah State of eastern Burma on May 10, 1942, with the principal objective of the army commander said to be the procurement opium. Upon the declaration of peace on August 16, 1945, the units of Phayap Army along with war time units were subsequently dissolved and demobilized in late October and early November of 1945. Diplomatic relations between Burma and Thailand were established in 1948, with both countries later becoming members of the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations).

Our guide tells us that we are free to walk around and explore the chedi on our own for about 30 minutes, and to take the stairs up to the chedi's upper terrace to enjoy the view if we like. I take photos of the chedi from below, in addition to a few of some local villagers that are casually hanging out within the chedi's compound, before ascending the white-washed steps to get a bird's-eye view of the surroundings. As I make my way up the stairway to the upper terrace, my mind flashes back to similar stupas and temples that I had climbed in Burma during visits to Pagan and Bago. The effort of the climb pays off in both some nice views and also a light refreshing breeze. After walking around the terrace's perimeter, I take the stairs back down to join the others in the group, who are sitting together in a line on a knee-high brick wall that rings the chedi's compound. 

Friendly Village Kids at the Base of Chedi Phukhao Thong

At the base of the chedi stairway, I veer to the right and head in the direction of where the rest of the group is sitting, passing the brick remains of what looks to be the base of a shrine, small chedi or other temple structure, upon which five Thai boys of varying ages are sitting. I greet them in Thai as I walk by, which raises a chorus of laughter and giggles from the boys before a couple of them return the greeting, catching the attention of my fellow tour group member as they turn in unison to watch our exchange. I pause to take a couple more pictures to capture the scene around the base of the chedi, which includes a man slowly leading his son around the compound on horseback, as I hear the boys behind me conversing in Thai with more laughter interjected into the melodic flow of rising and falling tonal inflections that are characteristic of the language (five variations for a given spoken consonant/vowel-combination sound such as 'ma' or 'ka' - verses three tonal inflection variations for the Burmese language - with each different variation even for a single-syllable word drastically changing the word's meaning.) Figuring I am likely the current topic of their conversation, I turn towards them and smile, which causes a rise in their laughter. One of the kids flashes me the 'peace' and/or 'V for Victory' sign with his index and middle fingers, which another one of the kids picks up on and mimics; this is something that is commonly seen among the youths around East and Southeast Asia when they encounter Western foreigners, and when they are taking selfies with or without their friends in the picture. I return the 'peace/Victory' sign to their apparent glee and satisfaction in having engaged this visiting farang tourist in a bit of fun interaction. 

The action takes a more humorous turn when the youngest of the kids rotates the back of his hand towards me and extends his middle finger, laughing as he does it knowing that it is something offensive if not exactly knowing what it really means. I can't help but laugh out loud as it is quite funny, but also light-heartedly wag a finger at him to let him know that this is not the sort of thing that will necessarily endear him to tourists. "Mai, krep! (No!)", I say through my laughter. One of the boys next feigns a brief serious look and he raises his right hand and points it at me with the index finger extended and the thumb bent to mimic the cocked hammer of a pistol, after which his face immediately softens to a joking smile. Seeing that they are enjoying this game that we have spontaneously entered into, I don a similarly faux serious expression and quickly pantomime a strong-side holster presentation (draw) into a two-handed isosceles stance (learned from a 'Tactical Pistol Techniques' instructional video and safely practiced at home with my inert 'Snap Caps'-loaded Czech CZ-75B 9mm and an inexpensive Uncle Mike's clip-on nylon holster, and far too briefly at the firing range with live ammo) with my own extended index finger/bent thumb 'pistol', and then mimic a slow left-right-left sweeping of it as if assessing for targets/threats before re-holstering my finger in reverse-sequence and give the kids a big smile. They are thoroughly entertained and squealing with knee-slapping laughter at this point, confirming that I have more than broken the ice with them despite the language barrier.

After this fun impromptu local encounter, I figure I need a photo to remember the moment, raising my camera and pointing to it so that the kids see that I want to get a picture of them (something that I should have learned to say in Thai and practice prior to the trip in anticipation of the situation if I were really on my 'travel game'). The boys get my meaning and quickly move in close on the short flight steps leading up onto the brick base structure, still in 'clowning around' mode as they pose for the picture, with our young pistolero still brandishing his finger gun. It is at this point that one of the guys from the tour group walks over and asks if I want to have a picture with the Thai kids, as we seem to be having fun together. I thank him and, handing him my camera, head over to strike a pose with the kids at the bottom of the steps for a quick snapshot before bidding farewell to them, as it is just about time to head to the last two stops on our Ayutthaya temple ruins tour. I rejoined the others in our group for the walk back to the van, during which one of the group members comments on that I really seemed to hit it off with the local kids, and that I obviously enjoy interacting with the locals when I travel. Once on the road, we basically retrace our route back in the direction of Wat Phra Si Sanphet, as our last two stops lie in near proximity to it.

The Central Prang Tower and Large Buddha Statue of Wat Mahathat
A Row of Headless Buddha Statues at Wat Mahathat

The Central Prang Tower of Wat Ratchaburana in the Distance

Me at Wat Mahathat (Photo Courtesy of a Japanese Tourist)

The Famous Stone Buddha Face of Wat Mahathat

Wat Mahathat ('Temple of the Great Relic') is located a short distance to the east of Wat Phra Si Sanphet. It was said to be built in 1374 by King Borommaracha I and originally called Phra Si Rattana Mahathat, then later Borommaracha I's nephew and successor Ramesuan (1369-1370, 1388-1395) expanded the site in 1384 by building a great temple while practicing as a monk at the temple between his two reigns as King. During Ramesuan's monkship, the name would change to the present Wat Mahathat. The Wat's Khmer-style central prang tower is considered to be one of the most impressive edifices of the old city, though its most famous feature is the face of a stone Buddha peeking out from among the roots at the base of a bayan tree. As we exit the van, our guide first takes us to see the iconic root-entwined stone Buddha face. Located near the southeast corner of the temple compound, is perhaps the most-photographed feature of the Wat. Our guide then walks us over to the Wat's central prang tower and the large Buddha that sits before it. The approach to the prang tower is flanked by two rows of Buddha statues whose heads had been severed by the invading Burmese during the sacking of Ayutthaya in 1767, as we are told yet again with an indignant tone how terrible the Burmese were. She tells us that we can walk around and explore the ruins on our own for about 15 minutes, and that we will meet up again at the van to visit the final site before the drive back to Bangkok. I take photos around Wat Mahathat's central prang and main Buddha, then stroll along the northern end of the temple compound, which affords a view of Wat Ratchaburana's central prang tower in the distance further north. A Japanese couple is taking photos nearby, and the husband has his wife stand with the ruins of Wat Mahathat in the near background, and those of Wat Ratchaburana in the distance. I ask the husband if he would like me to take a picture of the two of them with the same shot framed and he says yes. After I take their photo and hand his camera back, he returns the favor and takes a shot of me among the ruins with my camera. After a few more photos, I head back to join the others.

The Reclining Buddha (Phra Buddhasaiyart) of Wat Lokayasutharam
Our final stop, the Reclining Buddha of Wat Lokayasutharam (also known as the Phra Buddhasaiyart), lies to the west of Wat Phra Si Sanphet. Given our direction of travel, it seems like it would have been more efficient from the standpoint of time and distance of travel to have started with a visit to Wat Mahathat, followed by Wat Phra Si Sanphet, and then Wat Lokayasutharam so as to keep moving in an east to west direction, followed by a northwest head to Chedi Phukhao Thong. I'm not sure if the order of temples may have had something to do with avoiding the crowds, or if it was something about the desired angle of the sun and the quality of the light to yield the best views and resulting photos (something that I had noticed definitely had an effect on the outcome when taking temple ruins in Bagan, Burma, and some years later at Cambodia's Angkor Archeological Park). Wat Lokayasutharam was built in 1452, though all that currently remains of the temple is its brick foundation and a tilting prang tower that stands behind the Phra Buddhasaiyart Reclining Buddha and can be seen in the distance as we approach the site. The Phra Buddhasaiyart measures 37 meters long and 8 meters high, with the Buddha's head depicted as resting on a lotus and most of the body draped in an orange cloth representative of a monk's robe. It was constructed of bricks and cement in the art style of the Middle Ayutthaya Period. Our stop at the Phra Buddhasaiyart Reclining Buddha/Wat Lokayasutharam is brief, and after everyone has taken photos of the statue we are soon back on the road for the drive back to Bangkok.

Back on Khaosan Road by early evening, I head to the Marcopolo Hostel to do a little bit of laundry. Given the light-weight, quick-drying clothing I'm using for the trip and packing very light, I have been avoiding having to hit up the laundry mats and waiting around for the wash and dry cycles to complete by hand-washing small loads as needed. Unfortunately, my budget guest house room does not include even a small sink, so I head downstairs to the front desk and ask the manager if he has a small plastic basin, large plastic bowl, or even a fairly clean bucket that I can borrow to do some laundry in my room. When he claims that he has none of those items, I end up improvising by taking an empty 2-liter water bottle and, with a needle from an emergency sewing kit I'm carrying, perforate and remove the mouth and neck from the bottle and use that to do the essential laundry in my small shower/toilet stall, wring it out and hang it to dry in the room before heading out to grab some crab fried rice and a cold Singha Beer across the street, which by this time has completed its transition from vehicle-pedestrian dual use to a barricaded 'walking street'. After dinner, I realize that I have yet to walk the length of Soi Rambutri, the alley where the Marcopolo is located, to see where it leads and what's there to see. As head back into the alley, Susie Pub is again blasting the dance mix and no doubt rattling my window-mounted air conditioner and anything else not firmly nailed down.

As I exit the far end of the alley and turn left onto Rambutri Road, things are surprisingly quiet relative to the Khaosan Road side, with hardly any foot traffic to be seen. There are an assortment of restaurants and bars with some sidewalk tables out front along the street, in addition to some guest houses and shops. As I begin to stroll up the street in the direction of Chakrabongse Road, I'm approached by a very petite Ahka hill-tribe girl in traditional dress walking in the opposite direction, and with the lack of activity on the street I can hear the gritty patter and slap of her cheap plastic flip-flops with each tiny footfall on the cement. She stops me as we are just about to pass and points down into the open wooden box containing an assortment of handicrafts, jewelry and woven fabric items that hangs in front of her via shoulder straps, then looks up at me with imploring eyes. "You buy...? You buy...?" Having already purchased some Akha handicrafts wholly unintended on the spur of the moment on Khaosan Road the prior night, I had to say no. The look of disappointment registers in her eyes and her words are repeated not so much as a question, but more as an emphatic plea after a short sigh of frustration. "You buy, you buy! No one buy from me. Have baby. Have babe-be!", stressing that she supports her child by selling handcrafts to tourists. As sad as it is, I again have to refuse her, causing her to heave another sigh of frustration and resignation as she turns with downcast eyes and continues her way up the street.

A Ladyboy Selling Fried Scorpions, Grasshoppers, Giant Water Bugs and Such

Feeling guilty that I had to send her on way without a sale, I resume my stroll towards Chakrabongse Road to see what this street has to offer. Not far from the corner near where some patrons are sitting at the sidewalk table of some eating or drinking establishment, a street vendor is pushing a wheeled cart with what looks to be battery-powered light bulbs illuminating the offerings for sale. As I approach what looks to be a short-haired Thai vendor woman or girl in a sleeveless top and faded blue jeans, I move from the sidewalk to the curb to see what she is selling. I am surprised not only by the fact that she is selling a mix of fried scorpions, extra large grasshoppers, giant water bugs, silk worm pupa whose silken cocoons have been unraveled and removed by boiling them alive, long slender meal worms roasted to a golden brown, and large uncooked ant eggs, but also that the vendor woman is actually a 'katoey', or ladyboy.

Although there are tales of discrimination against katoey in Thailand, it seems that 'dudes looking like ladies' is otherwise not a big deal (unless perhaps a visiting farang picks one up thinking she's a working girl by mistake and finds out only after the money has been exchanged and during services rendered), and the ladyboy cabarets are known to be quite popular with tourist and locals alike. Thailand also has the reputation as being the best country to travel to if one is looking to 'fully transition' from male to female via re-assignment surgery, with the most knowledgeable, skillful and affordable doctors and surgeons around (Thailand is also one of the top locations for medical tourism involving common surgical procedures and treatments). Perhaps the most cringe-worthy scene for guys in the famous cult classic mondo documentary 'Shocking Asia' is where a Thai ladyboy goes through the final phase and irreversible stage of his/her transition as the cameras run, involving the surgical removal of the 'twig and berries', and the 'invagination' of the now-residual tissue to form a mock vaginal.

Figuring that I had to get a photo of this to show the folks back home, I ask him/her to pose by the cart of fried creepy-crawlies, to which he/she picked up two metal serving spoons and scooped up one each fried scorpion and giant water bug (which are popular in Vietnam, as the fluid of the giant water bug is added to the 'nuoc mam pha san' dipping sauce mixture of fish sauce, sugar water, chili, lime juice and rice vinegar as a flavor enhancer, imparting an airplane model glue-like aromatic element) for photo purposes. As the photo was about to be snapped, the giant water bug inadvertently slips from the silver spoon, causing the katoey vendor to emit a loud, womanly yet vaguely raspy and masculine scream, which results in one of the sidewalk-seated male patrons within earshot of the scream to shout out, "F***ing ladyboy!!!" in a distinctly Australian accent, quickly joined by the hardy chuckles of his presumed Aussie tablemates. The vendor recovers the wayward insect and his/her composure, allowing me to get the intended shot. I thanked him/her with the gender-specific "Kop kun krep", to which he/she responded with the gender-ambiguous "Kop kun hah" used by katoey.

I take a left at Chakrabongse Road to return to Khaosan Road and maybe call it an early evening. I stop by a small department store across from the Wat Chanasongkhram Temple (which I will make a point of visiting tomorrow morning, as I will soon be ending my stay on Khaosan to catch the night train up to Chiang Mai to spent about five days in and around the mountains of northern Thailand) to pick up a small flashlight and some batteries, something I neglected to pack that will likely be needed during my upcoming two-day trek and overnight Karen hill-tribe village stay, as the one selected for our trekking group's stay may not have electricity. In a small open parking lot a few doors down from the store, an old VW van has been converted into a mobile bar offering an impressive assortment of liquors, blinking colored lights and a sound system currently playing The Eagles' Hotel California as a couple of farang tourist lean against the fold-out wooden bar and sip their bottles of beer. As I turn onto Khaosan Road and pass through the gap between two adjacent concrete barricades, a Thai motorcycle taxi tout perhaps in his early 40's approaches holding out a glossy color flyer with pictures of gorgeous, light-skinned Asian women that appear to be either Japanese or Chinese. "Women? You looking for women? You want Turkish bathhouse?" He holds the flyer a bit closer and lightly taps it a couple of times as he beams a wide grin. "I arrange motorcycle taxi to take you to a very good Turkish bathhouse, not long to get there, and then bring you back after you're done..." When I tell him I'm not interested, he leans in a bit closer still. "Really beautiful Chinese girls. Young ones, very clean..." I again tell him that, no thanks, I'm not in need of a 'Turkish bath' tonight, and continue on my way down the road. 

Khaosan Road in the Evening

Midway to the Marcopolo, I see Pom again standing in the same spot next to the entrance of the bar she works out of, this time wearing a form-fitting, spaghetti-strap red dress. She recognizes me as she glances in my direction and we exchange smiles and friendly waves, after which she again motions me over. I greet her 'Thai style' and, with a playful giggle and a cute little cocking of her head (which by now has taken on a bit of an endearing quality borne of familiarity), she returns the greeting in kind with a joined palms 'wai' gesture positioned somewhat higher on the head than mine (culturally appropriate to someone older than her), and then asks me if I'm ready for a massage upstairs yet. Again, I light-heartedly decline her offer, then tell her that I'll be leaving Bangkok for Chiang Mai soon and bid her farewell and good luck ('choke-dee' in Thai) as we exchange what I presume will be our final 'wai' gestures.

Having entered Soi Rambutri Alley, I'm soon at the entrance to the Marcopolo, and as I am about to turn left to enter my guest house, a familiar-looking Burmese guy that I think was one of the curbside or storefront vendor hailing from Myanmar that I had met on Khaosan Road over the last couple of days emerges from the flow of humanity moving through the covered alley. He happens to glance up as we are about to pass each other, and immediately recognizes me. "Eh, kaun…", he addresses me in very informal Burmese, literally 'Hey, man (or dude)', knowing that I can speak at least a little of the language, as he shoot a quick look over his shoulder and points back in the direction of Susie Pub. "Dee club a'yun kaunh deh! Thwah kyee, nah...?!" Literally, "This club over here is very good! Go check it out, okay...?!). Based on his enthusiastic recommendation, I decide to scrap the plan of calling an early evening and thank him in Burmese for the hot tip regarding Susie Pub, an establishment whose choice of dance beats I'd become acquainted with the prior night and very early the next morning from my rented room, at least in the lower frequency region of the audio spectrum.

The place looks to be nearly full as I step through the door and begin to thread my way through the crowd of partying patrons, the vast majority of which unsurprisingly appear to be younger Western farang tourists at first glance, that dance to the loud, bass-heavy dance mix to the extent that the close proximity that the other bodies permits, as others stand in place and bob their heads with a bottle of beer or a cocktail in hand, or take turns alternately leaning in closer to the ear of the person next to them so that they can shout a conversation over the music. The layout of the interior is L-shaped, with the bar on the right side of the shorter leg.  The apparent path of least resistance through the crowd to get a beer takes me on an arc first near the wall opposite the bar, and during the closest approach to the wall I bump into a low, round pedestal table overloaded with empty cocktail glasses and beer bottles (a couple of which nearly topple over), overly-full ash trays and a bottle of vodka with perhaps a fingers' worth left in the bottom. I inch my way to the bar and after a brief wait walk away with a cold Singha Beer, which is refreshing given that the crowded club is stuffy and a bit warm despite the AC running, not to mention the indoor humidity running a bit higher than of the ambient outdoors owing to the exhalations and perspiration of those on the dance floor.

I find a spot of the periphery of the dance floor from which to sip my beer and observe the scene. I'm not into dancing (because I'm terrible at it) and not into the dance beats/techno genre that would later evolve into EDM, but I do find myself bobbing my head along to the beat as other enthusiastically bust their best dance moves on the crowded floor, and can't help but laugh when the DJ works the 'I Dream of Jeanie' homage into the mix (which seems to evoke a squeal of approval from the house). Surveying the other spectators on the fringes, I notice off to my left two local Thai guys talking to a gentleman whose stature and looks (particularly the hair) could easily make him rock vocalist extraordinaire Ronnie James Dio's doppelgänger, albeit with a darker Mediterranean complexion and decidedly bulked up as if hitting the weights daily. The three are standing next to a small round table upon which sits several shot glasses and two liquor bottles, one empty and the other nearly-full of clear spirit (vodka or gig?), and the Ronnie James Dio lookalike is already looking blurry-eyed and a bit wobbly. 

I opt for another beer before calling it a night and weave my way through the crowd to the bar, though when I make my way back past where I was previously standing, the two Thai guys are still standing by their round table and doing shots of their clear spirit of choice, but the 'Dio double' is nowhere to be seen. I'm thinking that the two Thai's have succeeded in drinking him under the table, and as I take my next step I feel the sole of my shoe slip a little on the otherwise sticky floor. Though the lighting in the club does not afford a decent view of the floor, I glance down and can just make out that the tip of my shoe is making contact with the edge of what I can only assume is a glistening puddle of vomit. At that instant, Susie Pub lost any luster that it could have potentially held, making me question the "...a'yun kaunh deh!" ('very good') assessment of the Burmese stall vendor that passed me in the alley. I quickly finish the rest of my beer and head back to my guest house, thinking that my time may have been better spent at the bar/café at the Khaosan entrance to the Soi Rambutri alley, which has a casual, laid-back vibe and shows American action movies (as least during the times that I've strolled by going in and out of my guest house) subtitled in Thai on the wall-mounted TV next to the bar. 

Tomorrow will be my last overnight stay on Khaosan Road, after which I will spend the day and part of the evening lugging all my stuff around with me in a slung backpack as I continue to explore Bangkok on foot with an occasion tuk-tuk ride here and there between neighborhoods of interest, followed by a night train excursion departing from Hua Lamphong Railway Station in a Second Class sleeper bunk that will arrive in Chiang Mai by 12:30 pm the following day. I'm kind of regretting that I didn't book a day trip to the fabled Damnoen Saduak floating market, which lies about 100 km west of Bangkok (about a two-hour drive each way), but figure that tomorrow after first checking out the nearby Wat Chanasongkhram Temple in the morning, I would spend the rest of the day and most of the evening exploring Bangkok's Chinatown (founded in 1782 and considered one of the largest Chinatowns in the world), particularly its famous main drag Yaowarat Road in the evening hours when sidewalk and curbside food vendor stalls perfume the air with the tantalizing aroma of grilled seafood and freshly-cooked Chinese & Thai cuisines, and the folding tables and chairs of corner restaurants claim the intersections of the sois (side streets) adjoining Yaowarat Road to accommodate the crowds of hungry customers. My time on Khaosan Road has been interesting, not to mention economical and convenient from a travelers' needs standpoint if one is making up their itinerary as the go along, and has given me that 'budget backpackers ghetto' experience that I hadn't encountered while traveling solo in Japan years earlier, nor in more recent travels with family and friends in Singapore and Burma, though I'm sure similar experiences will be had up around Chiang Mai, and hopefully elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

A Tribute to the Late Anthony Bourdain...

(Photo Courtesy of

I was shocked and deeply saddened to wake up early before the alarm went off, glance at the Facebook news feed and learn that Anthony Bourdain had been found dead in his hotel room while in France filming a future episode of Parts Unknown, even more so to learn later that he had chosen to take his own life.

I had first learned of Anthony Bourdain and his then-current Travel Channel show Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations while visiting with our daughter and son-in-law in Singapore. The TV was tuned to the Southeast Asia-regional Discovery Travel & Living channel, and as we watch together and talked about our regional side trips planned for this visit (which included Bali, Indonesia and Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo), a promo ran highlighting the travel and cooking series carried by the network. It was comprised of a montage of short video clips from the shows of the featured hosts, which included Andrew Zimmern, Ian Wright, Bobby Chin, Kylie Kwong, Nigella Lawson and a black leather-jacketed Anthony Bourdain striding purposefully through an urban landscape suggestive of New York City to the catchy bumper music of 'A Beautiful Life' by the band FirstCom. As I recall, the final clip segment of the promo (at around 0:45 in the song, when I go back and listen to the track) had Bourdain saying into the camera something like, "I'm here...What's keeping you?" At that point, our daughter began to enthusiastically fill me in on who Anthony Bourdain is and about his food and travel show No Reservation, which I should really check out as she knew that I'll love it.

I was able to check out an episode of No Reservations and was immediately hooked by the format of the show and his particular style of delivery, the details and insights that he's able to convey about the featured destination through his narration (occasionally sprinkled with his snarky brand of humor and pop culture references) coupled with the show's quality cinematography and slick production. The episodes that I consider my favorites and that resonate the most with me are those on destinations in Asia, particularly his episodes shot in Vietnam and other countries in Southeast Asia. I was also able to see most of the episodes of his first travel/food show, A Cook's Tour, and see how his unique style had further evolved and developed in the later No Reservations series as he had become more widely-traveled and worldly. I also enjoyed his follow-on Travel Channel series The Layover, but his CNN series Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown would take his TV game to the next level, not only in the destinations covered but also in the conceptual approaches for each episode and the more evocative and emotional narrations, but also the sophistication and artistry employed in the cinematography. The series premiere episode on Myanmar, utilizing close-ups and high frame rate slow-motion, was spellbinding and in my opinion the best presentation of the country on television to date.

Anthony Bourdain first gain international recognition with his New York Times Best Seller 'Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly', and with very good reason. Anthony was a consummate storyteller, both in fiction and non-fiction, being able to create compelling characters and intriguing plots, recount the good times, bad times and pivotal experiences in his life with eloquent candor, sometimes dispensing scathing and often darkly humorous critiques of people he's encountered along the way, and especially describe an exotic faraway destination in such a way that it quintessentially conveys that elusive sense of place that allows the reader to connect with a new destination almost as much as he has, to nearly experience the same emotions and the sense of wonder that he did. To read his descriptions, experiences and impressions of places that I have also traveled to, much like seeing personally-familiar sights, neighborhoods, settings and images, or hearing the familiar sounds (like the echoing call of a wooden yoke-laden wandering street vendor woman against the background sputter of motor scooters in Hanoi's Old Quarter) from half a world away while watching episodes of his food/travel series episodes, not only brings back a flood of fond memories (both in thought and also of a sensory nature), but makes me further appreciate the wealth of creative talent he had to connect with people through his written words and move them emotionally.

R.I.P., Anthony, and thanks for the countless hours of insightful entertainment, pleasure and inspiration you've given us through the years on-screen and through your written words. You've left us far too soon for whatever reason, and you are dearly missed. I don't know where you may be now (possibly sitting on a small, blue or red plastic stool in front of a short plastic table next to a sidewalk charcoal grill in Hanoi's Old Quarter, craving an order of bun cha?), but I trust that you are in a better place.