Friday, March 23, 2018

Bangkok's Khaosan Road, and Temple Ruins in Ayutthaya - Part I: A Khaosan Road State of Mind

Back in mid-2003, we were in the planning phase of a trip to Southeast Asia that would combine visiting with family in Rangoon, Burma and also extended family in Bangkok along with sightseeing in Thailand. Given the changing political winds in Burma at the time, combined with my father-in-law's involvement with the National League for Democracy (the political party of Daw Aung San Suu Gyi) and a general mistrust of Americans due to foreign policy positions of the US government, it was advised that I not come on the trip given the potential for troubles with my visiting Burma. As I had yet to visit Thailand, I decided that I would accompany the others  to Thailand to meet with extended family in Bangkok, remain in Thailand while my wife, daughter, brother-in-law and his wife all traveled together to Burma, and then meet up with them upon their return to Bangkok for a few more days in Thailand before returning to The States.

Wat Phra Kaew, Which Houses the Famous Emerald Buddha
Wat Pho, One of Bangkok's Oldest Temples
Wat Pho, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha
Fast-forward to earlier October 2003, very shortly after the end of the 'Rainy (Monsoon) Season'. The extended family time together in Thailand prior to the departure of the others  for Burma was very enjoyable. Our local family hosts were extremely warm, gracious and generous, providing us with lodging at their home on the outskirts of Bangkok and taking us around to see Bangkok's major sights such as Wat Pra Kaew and Wat Pho, enjoy some excellent restaurants, and even arranging an extended family overnight trip down to the seaside resort towns of Cha-Am and Hua Hin, which are located on the Western Gulf of Thailand and are considered the preferred beach getaway destination for local Thais living in the greater Bangkok area.

Bangkok's Khaosan Road, During the 'Open to Through Traffic' Daytime Hours

As the time approached for the others to depart for Burma and me to go solo until their return, it was suggested that the area around Bangkok's Khaosan Road (sometimes spelled 'Khao San') would be the best base of operations for both exploring the Southeast Asian 'City of Angels', and also for arranging excursions to other parts of Thailand. The rough quarter mile-long street is located in the Banglamphu area of Bangkok's Phra Nakhon district and bracketed on the west end by Chakkrapong Road and on the east end by Tanao Road. The name Khaosan means 'milled rice' in Thai (a reference to the street's former life as a major Bangkok rice market), and the road is famous around the world as a 'backpacker's ghetto' offering cheap accommodations, affordable travel agencies, budget backpacker's supplies and counterfeit merchandise, and for being a departure point for buses heading to Thailand's major tourist destinations in the north and south, and even some destinations in Cambodia and Laos. Khaosan Road lies only about 0.6 miles north of the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew complex, and it is roughly a half-mile walk from the west end of Khaosan Road to both the Phra Athit and Banglumphu Piers on the Chao Phraya River.

Khaosan Road During the 'Walking Street' Evening Hours
Akha Hill-Tribe Vendor Girls Selling Handicrafts on Khaosan Road

The road is open to vehicular traffic during the day, but in the evening it is block off at both ends and becomes a lively and colorful 'walking street'. Additional racks, tables and pegboard display stands of merchandise vendors, and food vendor carts (whose offerings including fried insect) are set up along the curbs to cater to the needs and whims of the increasing number of browsing tourists; a mix of plastic stools & mini-chairs in gaudy colors and folding chairs & tables, temporarily expand the territories of the bars and restaurants onto the sidewalks and curbs to keep pace with demand, as the varying styles of music emanating from the open fronts of the establishments branded with colorful backlight and flickering neon signage mixes and mingles in ebbs and flows through the thick tropical night air along the length of Khaosan; male and female touts hand out fliers or hold up signs advertising their associated restaurant, bar, club, tattoo shop, massage parlor or other service-type establishment as Akha hill-tribe girls and women relocated from Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai in northern Thailand in varying degrees of traditional costume with their distinctive beaded and embroidered headdress make the rounds on the street with their shoulder strap-slung tray of tribal silver and carved wooden jewelry and handicraft trinkets. At the ends of the barricaded street, motorcycle taxis, three-wheeled tuk-tuks and sedan taxis are parked at the ready as their riders and drivers enthusiastically solicit for passengers ("Hello! Hello! You need tuk-tuk?! Where you go?!"), with the motorcycle taxi drivers more opt to offer a competitive fare to the Patpong or Nana Plaza red light districts to see a 'ping pong ball show', or check out a particularly good massage parlor or Turkish bath house.

The night before the others are due to depart for Burma, we drive together to Khaosan road in the evening so that I can have a look around and perhaps select a travel agency that I could use to start planning my solo touring and excursions for the next nine days, and that we can also grab dinner from one of the restaurants there. We find parking perhaps a few of blocks away and entered Khaosan Road from the temporarily-barricaded T-intersection with Tanao Road, in the vicinity of which about half a dozen motorcycle taxi's are parked adjacent to the street corners with their owner/riders sitting on the seats and watching the tourists exiting Khaosan in hopes of picking up a fare. We make our way up the middle of the road, alternately browsing back and forth between the storefronts and the street & sidewalk vendor stalls along both sides of Khaosan, in some cases the stall being as simple as a piece of plywood loaded with pirated CD's, DVD's and video game disks spanning two plastic stools, or an artisan with two plastic chairs and a folding TV tray for his supplies painting a henna tattoo on the hand of a seated female backpacker.

On the left-hand side of the street we come upon an established called Songerm, whose storefront picture window and adjacent sliding glass door display from the inside a placard of logos for various international and region Asian airlines, a large illustrated poster displaying a map showing the most popular islands in the south of Thailand overlaid next to a color photo of a Songserm express boat and a list of island stops available with a joint ticket, and their offered services of package tours, sightseeing, and reservations for hotels, airline, train and boat tickets lettered on the sliding glass door. As we enter, an attractive Thai girl in perhaps her late 20's is sitting at the desk nearest to the door speaking on the phone in Thai. As she hangs up the phone, my brother-in-law's wife exchanges some words with her in Thai, after which she smiles and invites me to have a seat in the chair across from her desk. I tell her that I want to travel up to Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand, and do a two-day trek in the mountains that would include an overnight stay in one of the ethnic minority hill-tribe villages in the region. The area of northern Thailand that lies between the city of Chiang Mai, the Burma border to the west and the northern border with Laos formed by the Mekong River, includes members of the Karen, H'mong, Akha, Mien, Padaung (commonly called the 'Long-Neck Karens' by the Thais, as the women and girls of the tribe wear coiled brass or silver rings around their necks which, as an additional ring is added each year, the collar bones are displaced downward and make the neck appear stretched), Lahu and Lisu hill-tribes. I further tell her that I want the excursion to be economical, to which she suggested that I consider taking the night train, which would be cheap than flying from Bangkok to Chiang Mai and, as I would be in a sleeper car, I would save on one night's lodging.

I had been intrigued with Chiang Mai since back in college, when a Christmas Holiday Fair in the Student Union building had a particular vendor that was selling an impressive variety of handicrafts from Southeast Asia, from which I would end up buying a hand-carved wooden Hanuman mask from Bali and a carved wood and lacquered Buddhist monk statue from Burma. When I asked the vendor how he came upon the monk statue from Burma, he told me that he purchased it from a Burmese family that had come across the border into Thailand to seek out a better life, and that they had sold the statue, along with other carvings and handicrafts, to finance their new start. He went on to say that if one was interest in Southeast Asian handicrafts and the culture of both Thailand and the ethnic minority hill-tribes, then Chiang Mai was definitely the place to visit. We also have several friends that had mentioned how much they enjoy their visits to Chiang Mai which, together with what I had read about the hill-tribe cultures in the Chiang Mai/Chiang Rai region in the DK travel guide to Thailand (my interest in hill-tribe cultures having been fostered by a bit of exposure to the Shan and Pa'O ethnic minorities during our prior trip to Burma), placed it high on the list of destinations to check out in Thailand, and gave it priority over hitting the popular beaches of Phuket down in the south.

The Songserm agent says she knows of a particular trekking package that would meet my needs and pulls from a rack behind her a brochure from the Top North Tours company entitled Top North Trekking Tour, and shows me the '1 NIGHT 2 DAYS TREK INTHANOND AREA' package, which would be a guided group trek of up to 10 people. The itinerary started from Chiang Mai with a 1-1/2 hour drive by covered truck to the trekking area, which is located roughly located midway between Chiang Mai and the Burma border within the Doi Inthanond National Park. Following the drive, we would then ride on elephant (via the two-person wooden bench platforms chained to the elephant's back known as a 'howdah') for another 1-1/2 hours, followed by a drive to a nearby Karen hill-drive village. From there, it would be a 3 hour guided trek through jungle and mountain trails to another Karen hill-tribe village, where we would have dinner and spend the night. Day 2 would involve another 3 hours of trekking, followed by a short drive to the initial Karen village for lunch and one hour of bamboo rafting before the drive back to Chiang Mai.

She then hands me a brochure for the Top North Hotel in Chiang Mai, where she says I will spend the night the day before my trek, as the night train from Bangkok would leave the station at 10:00pm and not arrive in Chiang Mai until 11:50am the following day, whereas the pickup time from the hotel for the overnight trek was 9:30am. She further adds that Top North Tours has an office in the lobby of the Top North Hotel, and that they offer a number of half-day and full day package tours that could be booked a day in advance, as she hands me their Chiang Mai/Chiang Rai/Golden Triangle brochure before turning her attention alternately between her keyboard and monitor, then her calculator and notepad. As she crunches the numbers for a cost estimate, I thumb through the half and full-day tour packages available and, considering I may not likely make it back to Chiang Mai in the future, I am about to decide to add an extra couple of night's stay up north to see a bit more before returning to Bangkok, rather than having some additional days of sightseeing in Bangkok before the others return from Burma.

By doing so, that would allow me to add the full day Tour No. 1 'Chiang Rai - Golden Triangle' road trip, which entailed traveling by car in the morning from Chiang Mai north to Chiang Rai, with stops at a natural hot spring and an Akha hill-tribe village, then further north to Chiang Saen on the bank of the Mekong River to see the famous Chedi Luang Temple, continuing to Sop Ruak, the Thai town that overlooks the 'Golden Triangle' where the borders of Burma, Thailand and Laos meet at a bend in the Mekong River, followed by a stop at the Thai city of Mae Sai on the Burma border before returning to Chiang Mai in the evening. As the return night train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok would not leave the station until 9:50pm, the last added night's stay at the hotel would allow me a morning of rest after two day's worth of trekking followed by an all-day road trip and also do the Tour No. 5 'Doi Suthep - Meo Tribe' tour in the afternoon, which combined a visit to the famous, mountain-perched Doi Suthep Buddhist temple that overlooks the Chiang Mai valley with a visit to a Meo (H'mong) village located below the temple.

Planning My Excursion to Northern Thailand Through Songserm's Khaosan Road Office

As I was mentally putting together an itinerary for a two-day extended stay in Chiang Mai, the Songserm agent looks up and said that she had a cost estimate for my excursion to Chiang Mai, which she jotted down on a rectangular slip of paper. As I take it, I notice it is printed on one side such that when folded in half lengthwise, it forms a business card with the Songserm logo with a black and white photo of one of their express boats and contact numbers on one side, and a small, hand-drawn map of southern Thailand with a squiggle of coastal mainland with two designated port cities and three islands with their respective names written in both Thai and English, and the associated island service time tables, on the other side. She verbally summarizes what she's written on the slip of paper, that based on a round trip Bangkok-Chiang Mai night train fare, staying one night in Chiang Mai, and doing the 2 day/1 night trek, the total cost would be 3,400 Thai Baht. Given the exchange rate of 40 Baht to the US Dollar, USD $85 sounded like a pretty reasonable price, which would go up a bit if I extended my stay two days and added a couple of package tours. I tell her that her agency is the first one that I've check out, and that I would want to check out another agency or two for comparison before booking to package, and that I will get back to her later that evening. She says okay, and gives me another Songserm contact/express boat service cards (this one pre-folded into a two-sided card), upon which she had written her nickname 'Pinky' and her cell phone number, both streaked with yellow highlighter marker pen.

I thank her for her time and we make our way for the door. We step outside and take a few steps up the street before my brother-in-law's wife suggests that the other agencies would likely offer the same Top North trekking and package tours, or something comparable in scope and price, and the same night train tickets, and as the quoted price was very reasonable, I should just go ahead and book the excursion with Pinky. We turn around and head back through the Songserm office's sliding glass door, where Pinky greets us with a smile and a somewhat quizzical expression that turns into one of satisfaction as I tell her that I will go ahead and book the night train to Chiang Mai, the 2 day/1 night trek, and the hotel for one night before the trek and two nights after the trek. She goes back to her keyboard and monitor, and after an interlude of clattering keys she confirms that my night train will depart Bangkok on the 12th and the returning train will depart Chiang Mai on the 17th, and that a driver from the Top North Hotel will meet me at the station in Chiang Mai, and that my staggered three-night stay and the slot for the overnight trek leaving on the 13th have been reserved. I pay for the trip in Thai Baht, and Pinky tells me that I can come by the office tomorrow in the late morning to pick up my night train tickets as she gives me the receipt for the booking and payment.

I next ask about tour packages for visiting the temple ruins at the Ayutthaya Historic Park, the former capital of Thailand located about 48 miles north of Bangkok that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I'm told that are two full-day packages for visiting Ayutthaya that they can book for me. The more expensive one taking you there by van in the morning and returning to Bangkok via a riverboat on the Chao Phraya River by evening, but I opt to go a bit more economical and do the round trip by van in a group of ten people, and book that excursion for the day after tomorrow. With my itinerary for my solo excursions beyond Bangkok established (save for the tour packages for the two added days in Chiang Mai, which will be arranged from the hotel upon my arrival), I will only need to find accommodations for my interim stay on Khaosan Road when I am dropped off here tomorrow morning. The next task at hand is to find a place to grab some dinner, which we do as we continue our stroll up the road and eyeball the restaurants, some of which have hosts bearing menus for browsing on the street out front, and others that have placards with color photos of their key menu items on display.

Much to our surprise, we happen to spot up ahead the cousin of my brother-in-law's wife and her friend that had joined us earlier in our trip for touring the Grand Palace and Wat Pra Kaeo followed by a brief tuk-tuk ride (my first of many in Bangkok) to Wat Pho; they also joined us on a brief longtail boat ride upstream on the Chao Phraya River from the Tha Chang Pier and a short distance along one of the khlongs (canals) that branches off the river and extends into the city, and in some sections is flanked by the back porches and small attached docks of stilted family homes, whose owners utilize the khlongs for transportation (and their kids, for fun and cooling down on a hot and muggy day). They are equally surprised to see us, and as they, too, had yet to eat dinner, we invite them to join us.

A short stroll further up Khaosan we settle on one of the restaurants, opting to sit inside to benefit from the air conditioning rather than at a table out front adjacent to the sidewalk. We decide to order our own plates as opposed to extended family-style, so I go with an order of 'rad na' (which the Thais pronounce as 'lad nah' given that the spoken 'L' and 'R' sounds commonly get swapped in conversation relative to the way that they are spelled in Romanization, hence 'garage' tends to sound like 'galage', or more commonly heard by visitors to the country, the Thai word for a (particularly Western) foreigner - 'farang' - will sound more like 'falang'). Rad na is a Thai-Chinese noodle dish that originated in China and was introduced into Thailand by migrating Teowchew Chinese people that are native to the Chaoshan region of east Guangdong province. It is a savory dish made with stir fried wide rice noodles, protein in the for of beef, chicken, pork or seafood, straw mushrooms, gai lan (Chinese broccoli) and a brown sauce of stock, tapioca starch, sweet soy sauce, fish sauce, black pepper and a bit of sugar. It is especially good when prepared in a well-seasoned to impart that 'wok breath' flavor component, and is a dish I much prefer to pad Thai, the ever-popular and most-familiar Thai dish to the Western palate that is often times a bit too sweet and tangy to my tastes. I was first introduced to rad na a few days back at a Thai night market and took an immediate liking to it. Following our dinner, we make the drive back out to the suburb so the other can finish preparing for their morning flight to Burma and I can prep to go solo for a while.

We're up early the next morning, with a lighter than normal and less leisurely breakfast than we've been starting the day with, and exit the gated housing tract where we're stay, with the uniformed security guard exiting his shack as the motorized gate roll open and snaps a smart military-styled salute and vocalizes a crisp "Khup!" (or something like that, which he has done everytime we pass through the gate since our arrival). We drive out first to Bangkok's Don Mueang International Airport to drop off my wife, daughter and brother-in-law to check in for their flight to Rangoon, then I continue on with my brother-in-law's wife (who will join them in Rangoon in the coming days) and her brother to Khaosan Road, where they will wait until I find a place to stay before leaving me to start my solo time in Bangkok and northern Thailand. The morning is overcast and the temperature quite comfortable as we find a curbside parking space on Tanao Road just up from Khaosan Road. As we walk to the east end of the road, we pass a very narrow alley-like space between two buildings where some scaffolding has been erected for some sort of construction work, and from behind the scaffolding deeper into the space I see a disheveled Thai guy unsteadily emerge with a dirty wad of cloth that appears to be partially soak in fresh blood which he is holding against the back of his head. I don't know if he is the victim of a mugging or just a drunkard that happened to fall and hit his head, but it gives this 'backpacker's ghetto' a bit of an edgy vibe right off the bat, and I make a mental to self to not let my guard down too much.

We continue up the right-hand sidewalk of Khaosan in search of  budget accommodations, passing the Buddy Beer, Lodge, Swimming Pool & Shopping Plaza complex, a 7-Eleven, The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf and a McDonald's along the way. Just beyond a Bank of Asia branch is a covered alley leading off to the right identified by a small street sign as Soi Rambutri ('Soi' being Thai for a side-street branching off of a major street, which in this case would be Ramburi Lane, which runs parallel to Khaosan Road). Glancing down the alley, beyond the café and bar that, with accordion wall panels retracted, is open to both Khaosan and part of the alley, a drug store and a combination beauty shop and massage parlor, is a sign reading MARCOPOLO Hostel. It grabs my interest, so I tell them that I will go in to check it out, and they say that they will wait here and, if I decide to book a room, we can go back to grab my pack and they'll take off.

Cheap Accommodations For My Stay on Khaosan Road 

The place is pretty much what one would expect for a budget hostel/guest house in a backpacker's ghetto, a bit shabby but you're not staying there for the ambiance. The middle-aged guy at the front desk, who is perhaps Thai-Chinese given his features, says that the room are rented a day at a time as needed, and that the rate is 250 Baht a night plus a 300 Baht refundable deposit, and that room 306 is available. I ask if I can go up to have a look before deciding and he agrees. I take the stairs to the room and find the room to be very bare bones and in need of some paint, at a minimum. The small room consists of a single wooden pedestal bed with a window-mounted air conditioner overhead. I flip the switch on the A/C to confirm it functions and, though it does, it rattles and hums a bit on the loud side, but I figure I can tolerate it and likely become de-sensitized to it if it will allow me to sleep comfortably in the Bangkok heat and humidity, even though the rainy season has ended only recently. There is a narrow wooden desk built into the wall that's smaller than a night stand, with a mirror on the wall and a metal towel rack, sans towel, next to it. The bathroom lies on the other side of a thick white shower curtain, and consists of a shower stall with a small Western-style toilet located in the center and a faucet with separate hot and cold taps and a hose fitted with a sprayer nozzle at the end, but no sink. I figure that makes doing a small load of laundry by hand a bit of a problem, but for USD $6.25 a night, it will do in the short term. I head down to the front desk and pay for my first night plus the deposit and head out to let the other s know that I made my choice.

As we're walking back to the car to get my pack, they suggest that I grab some breakfast from a food vendor that they saw as we were parking the car. Near the corner of Rambutri Lane and Tanao, a vendor has a small stall setup on the sidewalk selling 'jok' (pronounced like 'joke'), the Thai version of rice porridge that is a popular breakfast offering throughout Southeast Asia and China, especially in dim sum restaurants. The vendor has a small gas burning keeping the pot of pre-made jok hot, and there is a small wooden stool next to the vendor cart to accommodate one customer. I pay form my order and take a seat as I cradle the bowl in my lap and dig in with the stainless steel version of the Asian ceramic soup spoon. The jok is thick and very savory, with what appears to be whole eggs stirred in to give it a yellowish color and make it very filling and satisfying, with hints of pork broth and that smoky 'wok breath' adding to the flavor profile. It is perhaps the best rice porridge I've ever had, and really hits the spot. As I finish my bowl of jok and grab my pack from the car, my brother-in-law's wife lends me a spare cell phone to use during my solo time in Thailand should I run into any problems, then she and her brother leave me to get on with exploring Bangkok and beyond. As I head back to the Marco Polo guest house to deposit my pack, the morning overcast is beginning to fade and be replace by the haze glare of the morning sun.

Ronald McDonald Greeting Customers with a Culturally-Appropriate 'Wai'

A Female Road Crew Working on Khaosan Road
I'm definitely in need of a caffeine fix so I stroll down to The Coffee Bean and Tea Leave café that I passed earlier. I'm intrigued by the statue of Ronald McDonald in front of Mickey-D's, as he is depicted as giving the Thai 'wai' sign of respect with the palms brought together and held at the mid-body, with the palms at roughly the level of the heart and the fingertips below the chin and a slight bow given when greeting someone of similar or lower social status as oneself, to the palms level with the top of the forehead when greeting someone of high status like a monk or royalty. I have been told that the symbolism of the 'wai' gesture originated ages ago, when villagers who did not have the means to make any food or monetary offerings to a monk would bring their palms together and hold them up, as the shape of the joined hands mimicked that of a lotus blossom, and hence a symbolic offering.

I order a large black coffee of the darkest (and hopefully strong) roast that CB&TL has to offer, then grab the last two-person table available, as the place is pretty business with tourist in need of a caffeine fix and a bite of breakfast. A few sips into my coffee, a guy in perhaps his mid to later twenties with a cup of coffee asks if he can share my table, to which I agree and begin some idle chit-chat. I learn that he has been traveling solo through Southeast Asia for a bit over a year, and is currently working his way through Thailand, and has recently come from Chiang Mai. I tell him that I will be heading up there in a few days and he begins to recount his time in the region, which included some trekking and overnight stays in hill-tribe villages, and how much he enjoyed Chiang Mai as it is much smaller and much more laid back than Bangkok. I tell him that I'm really looking forward to Chiang Mai, although the three-shot inoculation series for Japanese Encephalitis, of which I was only able to take two shot due to a bad cold bug I caught right around the time of the third shot (thereby missing out on developing a lifetime immunity to the disease, but being good for the next six months at least), really stung and left my arm aching, and that I felt lousy for a few days afterwards. "Japanese Encephalitis...?", he asks with a quizzical bordering on concerned look. I tell him that I had checked the Center for Disease Control website to see what inoculations/vaccinations were required or recommended for travel to Thailand, and had read that there had been an outbreak of Japanese Encephalitis in the Chiang Mai river valley region, which the nurse at the travel injection clinic confirmed. I then asked him what he was taking for Malaria prophylaxis, adding that I had gone with antibiotic Doxicycline because of the incidence of side effects associated with Mefloquine, even though Doxicycline tends to make one photophobic (sensitive to sunlight) and thus more susceptible to solar dermatitis. "You mean...I should be taking something to help prevent against Malaria...?", again with palpable concern in his expression. I tried to reassure him by saying that maybe I was just being too careful, and chances are that he would have nothing to worry about, though I felt bad about inadvertently putting a damper on his day after we both finished our coffees and went our separate ways.

Feeling invigorated with the caffeine in my system, I do a bit of reconnoitering to get familiar with what available along Khaosan Road in the way of vendors and shops, and the range of options in the way of food and drinks, continuing down to the end of the street and then coming back up the opposite sidewalk. My night train tickets won't be ready for pickup at the Songserm travel office until late morning, but conveniently the place is located close to my budget guest house, and is also the pickup point for the bus tour of Ayutthaya tomorrow morning. One door down from the Songserm office is a slender open-front shop whose narrow central aisle extends back for quite some distance, and whereas the front of the shop is displaying the typical printed T-shirts seen in a lot of the stalls and shop fronts, there are also some traditional Thai handicrafts a few display rack lengths in that catch my eye. As I head inside, I see more handicrafts further down, including some marionette suspended from some hooks anchored high on the wall near the back corner that appear to be Burmese-style instead of the anticipated Thai-style. A female associate near the back of the shop that I assume must be Thai is sorting and straightening clothing on one of the sales racks, and when I ask her if the marionettes are from Burma and she turns to me to reply that they are in fact from Burma, I notice that her feature suggests that she is Burmese. She is surprised that I was able to identify the origin of the displayed puppets, and very much more so when I begin speaking Burmese to her, and she learns that my wife is Burmese and that I have visit the country twice. A guy who appears to be a friend or associate of the girl enters the shop and walks back to greet her in Burmese, and is similarly surprised when she tells him of my familiarity with the language and my personal connect with Burma by marriage and through traveling. In conversation, I learn that many of the vendors on Khaosan Road are immigrants from Burma.

A few doors down, I check out a shop that specializes in backpacker's supplies and inexpensive luggage. Comparing the prices of smaller to mid-size packs similar to the one that I purchased in a large chain department store located within Paradise at the Mall in Bangkok's outer suburb of Bang Kae the evening of our first day in Bangkok (my first large shopping mall experience  in Thailand), I probably would have been better off holding off on that purchase until coming to Khaosan Road (and most-likely could have avoided the additional VAT - Value Added Tax - too). I notice quite a few backpackers traveling with smaller overnight packs also opting to wear a small day pack across their chest with the shoulder straps going across their shoulder blades. This seems like a good idea in that it would enable one to quickly and easily access things that they would reach for most without having to stop and dismount their likely heavy backpack to access it, and then have to put it back on. I had also heard that it is the best way to carry smaller expensive items, cash, important documents and needed medications, as there have been cases (especially in the Developing World) where thieves would walk up behind a backpacker with a box cutter or razorblade to stealthily slice the pack and carefully remove contents from it, often times with the backpacker being none the wiser in a crowded an noisy environment where an occasional from a passer-by would not be unexpected. I make a note to myself to purchase a small day pack to wear front-mounted prior to leaving for Chiang Mai. 

The Golden Chedi at the Wat Bowonniwet Vihara Temple
A Monk Getting His Head Shaved
"Shave and a Haircut, Two Bahts..."
The Phra Phuttha Chinnasi Buddha Statue in the Main Shrine Hall
It's mid morning and I still have some time to kill before hooking up with Pinky to pickup my night train tickets for the round trip to Chiang Mai. Looking at my DK travel guide book on Thailand as I approach the east end of Khaosan, the nearest point of interest is the Wat Bowonniwet Vihara temple, so I decide to make that my first stop on a walking tour of the area. The temple is a center of Thai Theravada Buddhism's Thammayut Nikaya order and many royal princes and kings had studied and served their monkhood there, with the Wat's golden Chedi contains the relics and ashes of Thai royals. The Wat's main shrine hall contains the Phra Phuttha Chinnasi, a statue of the Buddha which dates to around 1357. I head left on Tanao Road and right at the roundabout (traffic circle) onto Bowen Niwet Road and the spire of the Wat's golden chedi comes into view. I walk clockwise along the Wat compound's perimeter until I find an entrance on the Phra Sumen Road side and follow the main paved walkway onto the Wat grounds. A little ways ahead I come to what looks to be some kind of open-air storage building, with the glass-less windows covered in metal wire mesh to inhibit access when the presently propped-open door is closed and padlocked.

Peering through the window mesh, I see wooden shelf racks against the wall and some rows of similar free-standing racks in the center. The racks hold what appear to be a variety of old-looking items such as larger lacquer bowls that would be used by monks when they go out onto the streets to collect 'alms', their large morning meal that is offered 'piecemeal' by the members of the community that will wait, normally with their shoes & socks or sandals off, on the sidewalks or curbs with a bowl of rice, a cooked entrée or side dish, or a dessert item which they will spoon into the monk's alms bowl as they pass. This is something that is commonly seen in Southeast Asia, and during the prior year's trip to Burma I was able to watch a long line of Burmese Theravada Buddhist monks collect their morning alms in a small village on the outskirts of the city of Bago during an excursion by car from Rangoon. There also looks to be some aged and well-oxidized gongs and some dark carved wooden pieces that may be used to hang them; presumably these are instruments used (likely in the distant past) in the Wat's orchestral ensemble that would perform during festivals. I'm thinking that this storage building of old Wat items is meant to be an historical 'showroom' or open exhibit for visitors to walk through and get a sense of the Wat's history, and begin to step inside to have a closer look.

"Hey, wait! What are you doing?!" The male voice in Thai-accented English makes me freeze in my tracks and turn around. The gentleman is in a button-down shirt with a pen and notebook in the breast pocket, so my first thought is that he is a staff member or attendant for the Wat. "The hat! You're wearing a hat. You're not supposed to wear a hat when you go inside buildings on the grounds of a Wat. You need to take the hat off before you go inside." I was aware that one should not wear a hat when entering a temple, pagoda, meditation hall or a monk's quarters, but wasn't aware that the rule also applied to a storage building. I give him a respectfully apologetic 'wai' gesture and tell him that I am sorry in Thai with the phrase "Ko tod krup."

'Ko tod' is the Thai word for 'sorry', but in the case of a male speaker, the masculine modifier word 'krup' is added to make the declaration more polite. For a female speaker, the same declaration would be followed by the feminine modifier word 'ka' ('Ko tod ka') to make it more polite. The same male/female modifier is used respectively when saying hello in Thai ('Sah wah dee krup/ka'), and also when asking a question, such as where is the 'hong naam', or bathroom ('Hong naam yuu tii nai krup/ka?') One interesting exception to the rule is in the case of a male transvestite, or a male-to-female pre or post-operation transsexual, who is referred to as a ladyboy ('katoey'), whom would use neither a 'krup' or 'ka', but rather the blurred line modifier 'ha' (as in, 'Ko tod ha', 'Sah wah dee ha' and 'Hong naam yuu tii nai ha?')

Despite the initial chiding, the guy seems friendly enough, and perhaps just a wee bit tipsy given his mannerisms, and soon also by the scent of his breath. He tells me that he when through his brief novice monkhood at this Wat as a child (something that is commonly done among young devotees at the behest of their parents in predominantly Theravada Buddhist countries of Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Sri Lanka, with the boys becoming temporary monks and often times the girls also becoming temporary Buddhist nuns). He goes on to tell me with a chuckle that he had gone through several subsequent interim periods of monkhood at this Wat as a way to clean up after drifting from the straight and narrow and veering into bouts of too much alcohol and the occasional prostitute. As he claims to know Wat  Bowonniwet quite well, he offers to show me around and act as my guest, perhaps for a little compensation afterwards. I agree to his offer and we walk through the grounds of the Wat, visiting the parts of it that are open to the public as my amiable host provides a bit of insight into what I am seeing at the moment. After about 45 minutes or so we've seen pretty much what there is to see for tourists and laypeople (non-monks) alike, and by now it is nearly noon and the temperature has gone from quite warm to hot. I thank him for showing me around, and as compensation offer to take him for a cold beer (which I can really use right about now). He happily accepts my offer, but when I suggest that we walk back to Khaosan Road (as by now, my night train tickets to Chiang Mai should be ready for pickup), he says that he knows a place closer that will be cheaper. In the back of my mind, a small red flag goes up to suggest that a potential scam or rip-off (or worse) might be in my future, but I dial up my situational awareness a bit just in case and agree.

My Impromptu Wat Bowonniwet Guide

We exit the Wat Bowonniwet compound and cross Phra Sumen Road, then walk a short distance to the right before heading down a covered alley on the left. The alley soon dead ends in a T-intersection with a strip of tarmac-paved walkway shaded by a patchwork of adjoining corrugated tin awnings that separates the back of a row of buildings from what my DK guide book identifies as Khlong Banglumphu, a rather dirty-looking canal that runs parallel to Phra Sumen Road and connects with the Chao Phraya River perhaps a half-mile or so in the distance. My guide leads us left, and a couple of doors down we come to a stop in front of what looks like the open entrance to someone's small, somewhat cluttered garage, though from the reflected ambient light at the end of an aisle along the left side, we appear to be at the back of someone's place of business or some type of shop house commonly see in the towns and cities of Southeast Asia. Near the apparent back entrance of whatever establishment we're at is an unfinished wooden counter, and as my guide shouts out something in Thai towards the front, a middle-aged Thai woman approaches the counter. He briefly says something to her in Thai, after which she turns and retrieves a large bottle of Singha Beer from a top-opening refrigerator and two glasses from behind the wooden counter. I hand the woman enough Baht to cover the charge, and as she gets me the change, my guide-cum-drinking buddy takes the now-opened large Singha and the two glasses over to a wooden table and a couple of cheap plastic stools that overs a view of the khlong's latte brown-colored water and some laundry hanging from some suspended bamboo poles.

I take a seat at the table and split the Singha Beer between the two glasses. I don't know the official ways of saying 'cheers' in Thai, but know that 'choke dii' means 'good luck' (something that is commonly and often heard around Bangkok when you tell a tuk-tuk or motorcycle taxi driver that you are presently not in need of their services, and invariably they will respond with a friendly "Okay. Good luck to you!"), and say 'Choke dii' as we clank our glasses together and sip our cold Singha Beer and take in the surroundings. The environs of this particular neighborhood in Bangkok are a bit 'rough around the edges' urban ghetto, particularly with the stilted shanties jutting out over the latte brown-greenish colored water along the far bank of the khlong, and save for the presence of the canal remind me of parts of Rangoon that I had been in, but at the same time convey a bit of that 'Third World charm' element that intrigues me. As we sip our beers and engage in some idle chit-chat, a slender, shirtless Thai guy is slowly wading waist-deep through the murky water of the khlong with the bundled end of a dark-colored fishing net in his hand; as he slowly advances and sends ripples into motion on the water's surface, a gray wake rises up in the brown water to reveal a brief time-history of his course. He stops and casts out his net, pausing to let it settle to the muddy bottom of the khlong before slowly pulling it back in. After a few rounds of cast and retrieval, he actually nets a single, medium-sized fish of some sort and slowly makes his way over to the far bank to secure his catch before wading back out into the khlong to resume fishing. My drinking buddy comments with a chuckle that he wouldn't want to be the one to eat that fish given the visual condition of the water and the stilted shanties along the bank suggesting that the khlong might serve as the occupants' outdoor plumbing, to which I whole-heartedly agree.

The idle chit-chat next takes a turn into left field, as the on-again/off-again wayward monk across the table from me returns to tales of his penchant for alcohol and prostitutes, and as he had already seemed to be just a tad under the influence when we first met, the additional Singha Beer now seems to be lessening his inhibitions and loosening his tongue. He tells me of a beautiful Thai prostitute that he had once picked up and taken back to his room. After the money had changed hands and they started to get down to business, he suddenly learned with a shock that she was a he, as in a 'katoey' (ladyboy). He quickly considered his options given the situation and came to the conclusion that, given that he was drunk, horny and had already paid for the pleasure of her/his/their company, he might as well just take the plunge and enjoy it. My initial thought was 'Okay, Too Much Information...', and that it was probably time to drain my glass, thank him for showing me around Wat Bowonniwet, and head back to Khaosan Road to see if Pinky at the Songserm travel office had my Chiang Mai night train tickets ready for pickup. Hot on the heels of the telling of his katoey tale (tail?), he next recounts a bizarre incident from his teenage years, growing up in a rural village up-country. He was out tending the field on the family plot of land and noticed their water buffalo was out in the creek that ran through it. The water was deep enough in the middle that it just covered the animal's back and haunches, and he was wading out into the stream to lead the animal back to the field. As he approached the water buffalo from behind, he began to get aroused by the idea that he could have some fun with the animal and, given that the water was nearly up to his chest, any onlooker would be none the wiser. He claims he had his way with the animal and enjoyed it, smiling and chuckling as if revisiting a fond memory, though I'm wondering if he's just making the story for the fun of it to see what kind of reaction he can get from me. I would learn during the course of my first stay in-country that the Thai people do generally enjoy having fun, or 'sanuk', and also have quite a sense of humor of the 'pulling one's leg' variety and joyfully relish in seeing the surprised reactions of the recipient of their tall tale or outlandish claim; perhaps that's why Thailand is referred to as the 'Land of Smiles'.

His next statement makes me think that his tale of practicing animal husbandry without a license in his youth might not have been all 'sanuk' and games. "Did you know that a horse's vagina is the closest to that of a woman? It's true. The British sailors used to take horses with them when they sailed across the ocean, and they were the one's that said that. It's in history books; you can read about it..." On that rather twisted note, which may have just been more of his 'sanuk' schtick to prompt a funny reaction from me, I told him that I had to leave to meet with the travel agent back on Khaosan Road, and after again thanking him for the Wat  tour I say my goodbye and retrace my course through the alley back to the 'clean world' (as Sheriff Bart said in the film Blazing Saddles after his interlude with Lilly Von Schtupp). He follows me back into the alley and begins asking me if I can't give him a little something for his guide services back at the Wat, to which I remind him that the beer was meant to be the little something. "Okay, okay...", he says in resignation with a blurry-eyed smile, a half-hearted wai gesture and a 'Sah wah dee krup'.

Night Train Tickets to Chiang Mai and Back

Back on Khaosan, I head to the Songserm office and find Pinky at her desk talking with a tourist seated in front of her, with a middle-aged Western couple sitting on a pair of folding chairs placed on the sidewalk next to the open sliding glass door. On the curb in front of the Songserm office is a vendor stall selling an assortment of Thai handicrafts, clothing and souvenir items. The vendor girl running the stall turns out to be Burmese, so I practice a bit of my Burmese to her amusement, telling her of my two prior trips to Burma and the destinations visited, and also inquiring about the availability of authentic Burmese food around here (of which there is none, save for home cooking by the vendors themselves). As we talk, she pauses and looks over my right shoulder. "He speaks Burma language! He visits my country!", she says excitedly; apparently, the middle-aged couple is within earshot of our conversation and had become intrigued, and as I glance their way, they smile at me and nod in acknowledgement. The tourist talking with Pinky gets up and leaves, and when the seated couple do not immediately move it to take his place, I head over to Pinky. She greets me with a smile and hands me an envelope that contains a receipt and my night train tickets for Chiang Mai. I thank her and take my tickets back to my room at the Marcopolo, then grab a plate of salted fish fried rice for lunch before checking out a couple of additional sights located within reasonable walking distance of Khaosan Road.

Bangkok's Democracy Monument
Wat Ratchanadda and the Distinctive Loha Prasat (Metal Castle)
From end of Khaosan, it's a very short stroll down Tanao Road and then a left on Ratchadamnoen Klang Road to the first sight on my walking tour, which is Bangkok's Democracy Monument ('Anusawari Prachathipatai'); I decide to take it in from a bit of a distance so as to frame the 24m high monument in its entirety for a photo rather than a series of close-ups taken from within its busy traffic circle ('roundabout') location at the intersection of Dinso Road. The monument commemorate the 1932 Siamese coup d'état that established a constitutional monarchy in what was at the time the Kingdom of Siam, and is essentially Bangkok's equivalent of Paris' Arc de Triomphe. Continuing down Ratchadamnoen Klang Road, I briefly cross over onto Maha Chai Road to take a photo of Wat Ratchanadda and Loha Prasat from outside the Wat compound's low perimeter wall, then continue along Ratchadamnoen Klang to a bend in the road where, according to my DK guide book, I can pick up Boriphat (Paribatra) Road just after crossing over Khlong Banglumphu, which will take me to the base of Wat Saket, also known as The Golden Mount. Just as I approach the bend, at which point Ratchadamnoen Klang Road branches in chicken foot-fashion to become Ratchadamnoen Nok Road, Nakhon Sawan Road and Lan Luang Road in clockwise order, a tuk-tuk abruptly slows and pulls up beside me.

Three-Wheeled Tuk-Tuk Motorcycle Taxis on Bangkok's Thanon Burapha Street

The tuk-tuk is Thailand's version of the auto rickshaw, which is used in various parts of Asia, and select countries in the Middle East, Africa, Europe and the Americas. Thailand's tuk-tuks are predominantly of the three-wheeled variety, utilizing an air-cooled, two-stroke motorcycle engine that inspired the Thais to name their auto rickshaws 'tuk-tuks' after the vehicle's distinctive sputtering sound. Given the three-wheeled configuration, the tuk-tuks are not able to tilt like two-wheeled motorcycles and, similar to side-car motorcycles, in tight turns at higher speeds can go up on two wheels. The tuk-tuks consist of sheet metal bodies resting on the three wheel, with a small, door-less forward cabin for the driver who drives the tuk-tuk via handlebar controls, a canvas over frame roof with dropdown side curtains, and a rear passenger compartment with padded vinyl bench seating (sans seatbelts) and chromed hand railings provided for passenger to steady themselves in transit. Japan had begun exporting early model three-wheeled auto rickshaws to Thailand in the mid 1930's, with the bulk of the auto rickshaw influx into Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia resulting from the knockdown production of the 1957 Daihatsu Midget as Japan moved away from three-wheelers in the late 1960's.

The tuk-tuk driver calls out to me with cheerful enthusiasm. "You need tuk-tuk?! Where you go?!" I tell him that I'm on my way to The Golden Mount, but want go there on foot to sample the area's local color and maybe take some photos along the way, and thus won't need his services. "Oh, but today is holiday in Thailand, and we have tuk-tuk special price for holiday! Normal day, I take you somewhere by tuk-tuk, maybe ten minute drive, it costs you 70 Baht. Today, with holiday special price, I take you anywhere you want to go - even a fifteen minute drive, I charge you only 10 Baht! You want to stop somewhere along the way to see something, we'll stop so you can check it out while I'll wait, then we keep going. Is very good deal, only because of Thai holiday!" I'm thinking that it does sound like a good deal, that would save me a bit of time in covering the various temples and other sights in the immediate area, at the expense of perhaps missing out on a bit of local color and photo opportunities afforded by traveling on foot between points of interest in a given part of town ( a modus operandi that had served me well during my stay in the Higashiyama - 'East Foothills' - district of Kyoto, Japan some 15 years earlier).

My Annotated DK Guide Book Map for the Khaosan Road Area
Seeing my DK guide book in hand with my inserted index finger bookmarking the page of the color of the Bangkok 'Old City' district map, the driver points to it and tells me that there's a lot to see in this neighborhood, and says that he can drive me to the points of interest for the aforementioned mere sum of 10 Baht, and asks if he can see the book for a moment. I had it to him and he takes out a pen from his shirt pocket and begins making some notations on the map I had been glancing at during my stroll as I look on, telling me about each recommended sight as he circles it and jots notes next to it alternately in Thai and English, adding the word 'Free' to emphasis the value I'm getting for my 10 Baht. After listing what's in the Holiday Special fare offer for me, he then fills me on what's in it for him and the associated conditions of the offer.

"When you hire me for 10 Baht, we first go to three shops for you to look and maybe buy something there if you want while I wait at the door, but you have to be there for 15 minutes or more in each shop. After that, the shop owner gives me a punched slip for each customer I bring to his shop that looks around for 15 minutes or buys something. For every three punched slips I turn in, I get a voucher for one free liter of petrol. But when we go in to the shop, don't tell them you're just here to look; if they think you're not really here to shop, they might not give me a punched slip, and then we have to go to another shop. Okay?" I consider his offer and then figure that I might as well take him up on it and agree to it. I step into the tuk-tuk and slide along the vinyl bench seat cushion to within arm's reach of the chrome side railing should I need to reach for it, as he quickly settles into his seat behind the handlebars, turns the ignition and guns the throttle as we leave the curb and merge into the flow of traffic. He's moving at a pretty good clip and after a few turns onto some nondescript soi's (side streets), I lose a sense of orientation and the direction we are heading relative to where I had been picked up as the loud sputtering of the tuk-tuk's motor blots out the sound of the traffic around us.

The first stop we make is at a combination souvenir, gift and home décor shop reminiscent of some of the more upscale souvenir/gift shops found along Grant Avenue between California Street and Broadway, the tourist-centric 'main drag' of San Francisco's Chinatown. As I'm not big on buying and subsequently lugging around a lot of souvenirs when I travel (beyond perhaps a T-shirt of a country or particular city visited), I general forego such shops when I travel alone, but as I'm stuck here for the minimum-required 15 minutes, I browse the isles to see if any small item might catch my eye as something to pick up as a gift for family back home. I constantly check my watch as I peruse the shelves, display tables and racks of Thai goods and handicrafts, some of which reflects more of a Lao or ethnic minority hill-tribe styling, and at about the 10 minute mark decide to pick up a small Buddha statue carved of wood and stained in a very dark mahogany color. As I meet the 15-minute market, I head to the front register to pay for my purchase as my awaiting driver nods in approval as he comes one punch closer to a free liter of petrol.

The next stop is a men's wear and custom tailoring shop perhaps 5 or so blocks away, which is of no interest to me as I very rarely go out clothes shopping beyond a trip to REI for some lightweight travel clothing prior to a trip or a souvenir T-shirt from a destination visited. The associate that greets me is a man of Middle Eastern or West Asian extraction, and asks what type of clothing I'm looking for and if I would like to be measured for a suit. I am about to tell him that, no, I am just looking around, but per agreement buy myself 15 minutes by saying that I don't have anything in mind to have made at the moment, but will browse the racks and shelves to see if any of the plain and patterned silk and cotton-blended fabrics grabs my eye, and that I will let him know if I find something to my liking and am ready for a measurement. I slowing finger through some of the bolts of fabrics and examples of custom-made suits, dress shirts and such with mock interest as I sneak glances at my watch, several times stopping briefly to pause and look a particular article of hanging clothing up and down with folded arms, then raise the tip of my right index finger to my lips and lightly tap it a couple of times with a slight cocking of the head to suggest I'm on the verge of making a decision. At last, my tuk-tuk driver gets another voucher stamp and we are on our way.

The third stop is another gift shop, thought it is not nearly as interesting as the first and is more of a small, higher-end boutique shop with bland offerings such as scarves, decorative accents and such geared more towards women's' tastes, and lacking the things like traditional Thai and ethnic minority handicrafts or antique items (old balances scale with weights, old swords or knives, ornately-carved opium pipes, etc.) that would intrigue me and easily hold my interest for 15 minutes. At the end of the required minimum stay in the shop, my driver gets his final voucher stamp and thus his free liter of petrol, and we are at least on our way.

A Special 'Free' Temple Stop Courtesy of my Tuk-Tuk Driver

Wat Saket, a.k.a. The Golden Mount
A View of Bangkok from The Temple of the Golden Mount

He first takes me to what is a circled Wat or temple icon on my guide book map that is not identified by name. He pulls the tuk-tuk curbside and kills the engine, and accompanies me into the Wat to act as a guide for this particular 'free' attraction added to my special ten Baht holiday fare. He tells me that we are in luck, as this is one of the few times that the Wat's famous Buddha statue is open for display to the general public. The Wat appears to be, or at least contain, a Buddhist nunnery, and as we make our way to the Buddha statue we pass a hall where some nuns and other female devotees dressed in white are seated on the floor before the altar as if assemble for a discourse or a prayer session. The Buddha that we have come to see is housed in a separate small shrine hall; visually, it does not personally strike me as particularly extraordinary or noteworthy relative to other Buddha statues that I seen, but its history makes it very highly regarded by the residents and devotees of the Wat.

We next head to Wat Saket, which is also know as The Temple of the Golden Mount. The original Wat (then known as Wat Sakae) dates back to the Kingdom of Ayutthaya era (1351-1767), with the iconic Golden Mount actually an artificial hill of earth and bricks resulting from a failed attempt by King Rama III (1787-1851) to build a huge chedi within the grounds of the Wat, which due to the soft soil collapsed in upon itself. A small chedi was later built atop the artificial hill (which the locals started referring to as 'phu khao' once the mound became overgrown with weeds and took on the appearance of a natural hill) in the period spanning the reigns of Kings Rama IV and Rama V. The concrete walls surrounding the hill were later added in the 1940's to prevent erosion, with the present Wat Saket built in the early 20th Century. My driver parks his tuk-tuk curbside and tells me that he will wait while I walk the stairs up to the top of the Golden Mount to take in the view of Bangkok and snap some pictures. I don't want to leave him waiting too long so I ascend the stairs at a pretty good clip that slows appreciably as I arrive at the top. There is enough of a breeze there to cause the flags to flutter and provide a relief from the day's increasing heat, with the sun's rays reflecting brightly along sections of the peaked temple and pavilion roofs below. As I circle the terrace at the summit, I ring the hanging bells in passing for good luck and take a quick glance at the Buddhas on display within the Wat. I then make my way back to where my driver let me off, only to find that he has taken off.

I start walking back in the direction of Wat Ratchanadda to walk through it and take photos when another tuk-tuk driver trolling for petrol voucher punches rolls up to the curb. "You need tuk-tuk? Where you go? It's Thai holiday special rate today..." I tell him that I am aware of the special, and that the tuk-tuk driver who earned his petrol voucher at the expense of my time had taken off instead of waiting to take me to some additional free stops for my 10 Baht. He offers to take me to those stops for another mere 10 Baht and some of my time to get his free liter of petrol. I'm tempted to say no and just walking, but decide to give in to some periods of sheer boredom and part with 10 more Baht in exchange for covering more territory than I could on foot.

We stop at the same gift and souvenir shop that we started off with the first time around, and I begrudgingly wander the aisles for 15 minutes feigning interest in various items that line the shelves. To my dismay, the next shop in the same men's tailoring shop that we had visited before, and this time I have even less interest in browsing around. One of the Middle Eastern associates walks up to ask me want kind of garment I'm looking for as he reaches for his rolled-up measuring tape. I really don't want to be here and say perhaps a bit flippantly that I'm not interesting in anything, but am just browsing around. As I start down on of the aisles, I feel a tap on my should and see my tuk-tuk glaring at me with a looking at me with annoyance bordering on disgust as he motions for me to follow him outside. As we cross the street and head back to his tuk-tuk, he begins to read me the riot act. "What are you doing?!!! You're not supposed to say that! He'll never punch my voucher if he knows you're not going to buy anything! Now we have to go to another place!" His tuk-tuk sputters to life and he guns the throttle as we quickly lurch into the flow of traffic. Yelling over the whining growl of the two-stroke engine, he tells me that we're on our way to another custom tailoring shop. At this point I have pretty much lost all patience tell him that I have no interest in fine menswear made to order at competitive prices, and why can't he take me someplace I would willingly spent time in, like a go-go bar (nursing a beer while chatting up a bikinied Thai bar girl sounds like a nice way to kill at least 15 minutes), a guitar shop or even one of the numerous gun shops along Chinatown's Thanon Burapha Street.

I became familiar with the gun shops and the shooting supply vendor stalls sharing the sidewalk with stalls selling skewers of grilled pork, shrimp and squid balls, fried dough snacks and other Thai street foods along Thanon Burapha during our first afternoon in Bangkok. After picking us up from Bangkok's Don Mueang Int'l (considered to be one of the oldest international airports in the world) and getting us settled into their home for our stay, our hosts drove us back into the city to check out a smallish shopping mall on the fringes of Chinatown that they liked for their selection of Thai silks and fabrics in some of the stalls. As I was more interested in exploring the surrounding neighborhood to sample the local color, I told them I would meet back up with them at the front of the mall in about an hour and walked across to the other side of Thanon Burapha, heading left as the road ended in a T-intersection not far away to the right. The sidewalk vendor stall on the curb immediately caught my eye, as the folding table displayed an assortment of gun cleaning supplies, and from the upright swiveling peg-style display stand next to the table hung an assortment of pistol and revolver holsters of both the leather and webbed nylon variety, in addition to some rifle/shotgun slings and a few segmented long gun cleaning rods in blister packaging.

Continuing down Thanon Burapha, I entered the first of several gun shops along my side of the road. The handguns laid out in the glass display case were a mix of semiautomatic pistols and double-action revolvers in both blued and stainless steel, with the English portions of the sales tags showing .22LR, .380 ACP, 9mm, .45 ACP, .38 Special and .357 Magnum as the available calibers. The long arms in the racks on the wall behind the counter were predominately bolt and semiauto rifles in the .22 Long Rifle caliber based on the short actions, and a number of pump-action shotguns in what appeared to be chambered in 12 Gauge with a few over-under and single-barrel break-action shotguns also in the racks. In chatting with one of the associates that spoke English and did competitive Action Pistol shooting as a hobby, Thai private citizens are only able to own long guns of the shotguns or rim-fire rifles, which offer either limited effective range or are low-powered, out of fear that allowing citizens legal access to center-fire, high-powered rifle could present a potential assassination threat to the Thai King or members of the royal family. In light of what I was told, I was later surprised when I walked into another gun shop further down and along the other side of Thanon Burapha and saw displayed high up on the back wall what appeared to be a short-barreled variant of the Galil, which is Israeli's take on the AK-47 chambered in. 5.56x45mm. When I tried to ask if the weapon was operational or perhaps an inoperable/'de-milled' example re-built from a cut receiver for display purposes only, the woman behind the counter (who was dressed in long, conservative robe with a full head scarf that I assumed may have been from the Muslim - and still quite restive - region of Southern Thailand) merely gave me a cold, blank stare; I'm not sure if her response was due to a language barrier or me being just another annoying 'farang' tourist.

Back in the tuk-tuk, tensions between the driver and I continue to mount, as I am told that the voucher destinations are pre-established as a limited number of shops, and we are heading to another tailor shop as planned. "Fine, whatever! Let's just finish this and drop me off after the last stop...", I say in frustrated resignation. I suffer through two more 15-minute stops, declining yet another offer to be measured for a suit, and end up at another boring tourist gift shop before finally parting ways with my still-annoyed tuk-tuk driver and spend a couple of hours exploring the region I have been dropped off in before hailing heading to the next neighborhood on the places to explore in Bangkok. This time, before the first of the three smiling and jovial tuk-tuk drivers that have parked together on the curb and are chatting while waiting for their next rider can ask me "Where you go..." and tell me about the special holiday fare, I tell them firmly up front that I want to go from here to the outer fringes of Chinatown, full-fare with no 10 Baht/three-stop special rate. To this, they respond with hardy shared laughter at this farang who has had enough of the 'special rate' and the nearest one enters his tuk-tuk and fires up the motor.

I finally arrive back on Khaosan Road not long after sunset, and hit one of the restaurants for an order of pad see ew. It's a Thai dish with Chinese influences that was introduced to at a Bangkok night market visited after returning from the overnight trip to Cha-am and Hua Hin on the western Gulf of Thailand. The noodle dish is similar to rad na except that it is stir fried dry and lacks the brown sauce of rad na, and also similar to the Singaporean/Malaysian char kway teow noodles (another favorite of mine). It combines broad, flat rice noodles with garlic, Chinese broccoli, light and dark soy sauce, eggs and thinly-sliced pork, beef or chicken (alternately, shrimp and/or other seafood). Finishing my pad see ew and taking the last pull from my large Singha Beer, I head out into the street to take in the evening ambiance, which is moderately lively.

Akha Encounters on Khaosan Road

A little ways down the street I'm approached by a small group of Akha hill-tribe vendor women and girls selling their handicrafts and jewelry, with the older ones tending to wear the more traditional Akha clothing and headdress and the younger ones opting for just the headdress accessorizing their blue jeans and T-shirts. The Akha vendors are ubiquitous along Khaosan Road and their persistence in making a sale an annoyance for visiting tourist after the initial novelty wears off. I decide to stop and humor them for a while and maybe engage them in a bit of conversation. As they show me their various handicrafts, trinkets and tribal jewelry, a couple of additional Akha vendors see me as a temporarily-captive audience of one and join the group as they fumble through the items on their shoulder-suspended boxes to pick out the ones that I might be most interested in. As I smile and repeat to the ladies that I'm not really interested in anything, I glance over my shoulder and notice that the diners and drinkers assembled at the curbside tables of one on the restaurants behind have become part of the audience, watching with amusement as this sucker tourist gets gang-solicited by a bunch of Akha females and chuckling as they exchange comments among one another.

At one point, a rather petite (as is often the case with the ethnic minority hill-tribes encountered in Southeast Asia), older Akha woman takes what looks to be a C-shaped dark rattan bracelet for her suspended vendor box and slaps it on my right forearm just above the wrist. I tell her that I'm not interest, adding that I think it's too small for me anyway. "No! No too small...!", she says to me as she begins to slide the bracelet first down to adjacent to the base of my right thumb, then up to about mid forearm, and again back to the base of the thumb, repeated the back and forth motion about six time. "See?! See?! No small...!" Having a dirty mind, I can't help but flash the older tribal woman a devilish smile and say, "Ooooooo...", followed up by dirty 'double-meaning' chuckle. I don't think the Akha Auntie got the joke or picked up on the risqué innuendo, but the younger Akha women and girls seem to realize the joke, looking at each other and exchanging hardy giggles at the Auntie's expense.

Much like the wandering Flower H'mong and Red D'zao hill-tribe vendor girls that I would encounter latter on the streets of Sapa in northwestern Vietnam, or the vendor girls working the tourist on the streets Siem Reap and near the temples of Angkor, the persistence of the girls can be off-putting and cause visiting tourists to quickly send them on their way. However, I have found that if you can coax them out of the 'hard sell' mode with a bit of conversation or humor, the mood quickly lightens, and their 'non-business' personalities (most often warm and engaging) can turn the encounters into pleasant and memorable experience.  I begin to feel guilty not buying anything, and figure that even if I don't want the items offered, they would make nice, compact and easy to lug around gifts for family and friends back in the States. I ask the Akha Auntie how much and hand over the request amount of Thai Baht. As she thanks me, I ask her how you say 'thank you' in the Akha language, and she tell me the phrase in "Oo-doo toe mah". I practice it a few times as they take turns correcting my tonal inflections after giggling, further breaking the ice and warming them up a bit more given that this farang tourist has taken an interest in their tribal culture. I buy a few more small pieces of Akha jewelry from some of the other vender girls and women, thereby sharing the wealth among the group. "Thank you for helping Akha people", one of the younger vendor girls in blue jeans and a blue T-shirt accessorized with her Akha headdress. Before continuing up the street, I snap a picture of some of the vendors, one of whom then borrows my camera to take a shot of me with a couple of the Ahka vendors.

To be continued in Part II...