Bangkok by Day. Bangkok by Night.

27 Nov

Arrived in Bangkok. Had three days in this city. Three days is plenty. Sprawling. Polluted. Unruly. Word on the street is there’s over 5,500 7-11s convenience stores in this country…  And, thousands  and thousands more profiting in prostitution.  Heart the 7-11s.  But,  can do without human trafficking and sex crimes.  Yea, three days is plenty.  I’m ready to absorb the brazen seediness of this city. Bring it on baby!

A friend of mine has a friend who’s a driver/tour guide in Bangkok. His name is Kitty. I emailed him prior to my arrival asking for help to pilot this place.. Next thing I know, I have a private guide ushering me around in a big, black car with tinted windows. Well, at least I fit in.

Kitty and I kicked off “Bangkok in one day” at the Grand Palace. The present King Bhumibol Adulyadej – pushing 83 years of age – and his Queen no longer live there. They built another super-sized palace across town. The Grand Palace was the official residence of all the Kings of Thailand starting from 18th century onward.

It houses complex buildings like bodacious Buddhist temples, golden Stuppas, and Kinnon – the mythical golden creature of half bird and half man. All in all, the place is dripping in gold and largeness and scary mythical statues that give kids nightmares.

A quick background on Thailand’s govt to put things in perspective. Sum it up this way. Thailand is considered democracy to the UN and military dictatorship to the people.  They haphazardly borrow from the British style of government – a constitutional monarchy under a parliamentary democratic system.

But lucky for its people, the government adds its own special seasoning. Try a strong dose of military might whose special mission is to imprison or kill anyone who speaks against or annoys the Royal monarchy. Yea, it’s in the air. I bet my pair of H&M black leggings this place is gearing up for a rumble. More on that later…

Back to a day in Bangkok. So, I had Kitty-cat and his armored car for the day. As I said, our first stop was the Grand Palace. Yes, it not only houses scary, gold statues but it also entertains the famous Emerald Buddha. I assumed E-Buddha would be large and in charge. Like Jolly Green Giant to sprout. Not the case.

E-Buddha was sprout – about 2 feet on a good day. And, he REALLY was made out of emerald. Rumor has it the Thai people stole him from Cambodia. Sprout was perched high on a stack of gold plates. You can’t take pictures. Was anti-climatic for me. *This is NOT a travel blog, so if you’re interested, google Emerald Buddha and Bangkok for more background on the little green martian.

I was more interested in the monks with shaved heads wearing Orange sheets sitting a mere 4 feet away from us. They look like Hare Krishnas hair at JFK airport. I wanted THEIR story. Kitty gave me the low down while we sat cross-legged, with no shoes in temple-land.

Me: “What’s their deal? The guys in the orange sheets?”

Kitty: “The monks? They come to pray. Everyday. Pray..”

Me: “What type of Buddhism do they practice? Can they marry? What is their life like?”

Kitty: “The Buddhism Thai people follow is called Theravada. But, Thai people have old traditions and beliefs. So, our Buddhism is different Buddhism. We use our traditions, Chinese traditions and mix with Buddhism. Almost 95% of population is Buddhist.

You ask about marry? No marry. No touch woman. No look at woman. No think woman. Can’t eat after noon. Only two meals a day. Pray. Pray to Buddha. Monks have many rules. Over 200 rules to follow. Thai people, not as many rules. Just five rules to be a good Buddhist – no stealing, no lying, no cheating on wife, no gambling, no drinking… Follow these rules, we get good life. Good afterlife. Good Buddhist.”

I never thought Buddhism had rules. Catholic church has the rules. But, Buddhist? Newsflash. Then, my American side came out. I mean, they have to do something productive, right?

Me: “Besides, praying what do they do? Give back to the community? Help the homeless? I mean, they can’t pray and not look at woman all the time…”

Kitty: “No help people. People help them. Our people make food. Honor to give food to monks. Honor to give money to monks. Give to monks, you get merits. Get better life and more blessings. Monks do ceremonies. People pay for ceremonies. Good if your son is monk because you get ceremonies for free…”

Me: “What? What? What do they do with the money then? Pay for upkeep of the temple? Reinvest? 401K plans? Mattresses? Health Insurance? ”

Kitty: “ People don’t know where money goes. People are upset, but can’t ask questions to monks. Be disrespectful. People do talk… Bad to talk about monks. The collect money. But,temple paid for by the government. Monks pay nothing. Being monk is good profession.”

Me: “Wait. They don’t feed the poor? Help children? Feed children? Nothing?”

He starts to laugh out my outrage. And, he is not whispering. He’s enjoying this conversation, yet looks around to make sure no one is listening. What he is saying is blasphemy.

Kitty: “Many monks in my country. Monks get free food. Free education. Everything is free for them. Just like military, no? And, you don’t have to be a monk for life. Get education. Food. House. Clothes. Leave and get married later. Poor families send their boys to be monks. Good investment in son. Good profession…Easier for son to get job later if monk.”

I look over. There is a huge box filled with money. Contributions. This temple is dripping in gold. And, the people outside are starving. Men sabotaging religion in the name of God to better themselves. It’s called “morality by man.” And, its a reoccurring theme in all religion – Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism…And, I suspect Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Confucianism, Taoism. Not one religion holds the morality card.

The irony here is man never learns. Each religion has a story of God punishing its people who use His name to self-enrich and promote their individual interests. Old Testament is full of stories. God destroying temples because the Jews were selling goods in holy places. He sent Jesus down to kick some woop ass, then we have the stories in New Testament of man getting annoyed with Jesus for calling them out on their corruption, lies and selfishness. Yet, man does it over and over and over again. Hijacks a religion or a philosophy to personally gain. Man’s pride and cowardice continue to be our downfall.

As I listened to Kitty and through my travels in Buddhist countries, I found Buddhism to be rooted in a philosophy of one gives to get. Give monks money. Prepare monks meals. Feed the poor. Turn a prayer wheel. Raise a prayer flag… With the intention of getting something in return – get more merits, get a good grade, get married or get reincarnated as a super-star instead of a slimy-salamander. Their intention is to give back to personally benefit. There’s a difference between man giving to others to get blessings rather than giving to others to be a blessing. Take a look at the verbs. To Get vs. To Be. Big difference.

I’ve been making a daily effort – though most days I fall short – where I try to be a blessing to others whether it is in the form of a smile, kind words, or just being still. It’s hard because most of the time I think, “if I’m nice, smile and wear lip gloss, passport man will give me a stamp… or the front desk lady will upgrade my room to a plastic shower curtain and two towels…” It is only those times when I’m conscious of being a blessing to others, where I can truly can see a difference. Difference in the people’s acceptance of me. And, a difference in my acceptance of them. It’s like all barriers of communications are shredded. We genuinely connect.

Tangent. Sorry. I’m writing this AFTER being in Bhutan. So, my appreciation and understanding for Buddhism has only increased. Back to Bangkok.

After Kitty-cat took a zillion pictures of me at the Palace – hate pictures of me – we bolted for the tailors. This was HIGH on my list.

Wanted to get some clothes made. No clue what, but why not? Well, three dresses and two suits later, I walked out the door. First of all, don’t wear dresses. I’m a pants gal. The shocking white legs will do it to you. But, since I’ve been wearing only three pairs of pants for the last four months, I’m on a fashion, style mission.

You’ve heard me vow upon my return to the land of the free press, that I’m going to wear styles made for 2011, not 1989.

Tailor people asked me to pick out fabrics, colors and styles. They handed me a 2000 Vogue issue and said, “You pick style. We make.” Well, maternity, wedding and bridesmaid dresses were out. So, I randomly choose three style that MAY work. And, what do I know about fabrics? Silk? Cotton? Wool? No clue. Colors too? I willed for Mom to be there. She knows her fabrics and fashions. It was good fun. They shipped the clothes back to the states. After all of this, let’s hope they fit. If not, it’s going on Ebay.

That night, I signed up for “Bike Bangkok by Moon-Light” with Grasshopper Adventures. The company claims they have bikes for Amazons – aka Tall people. The bike tour started at 6 pm and ended around 10 pm. We were to bike through the bowels of Bangkok while wearing a helmet and bug repellent.

Only three of us signed up for the tour this night. The other two were from Sarasota, Florida. Super buzz kill. They thought the same. Young couple. Early 20’s. Sold their condo and took the year off to travel the world. They are just entering week 4 of their overseas adventure. It took the other Florida gal only 15 mins to start complaining – Thai food was too greasy…hostel was dirty… and surprised by the number of creepy crawly bugs… I smiled. Nod my head and looked at the dude. Yea, this is not going to last. He looked embarrassed.

I would love to know how this little soiree around the world even came up in conversation.

Drunk one night? At a bar in Sarasota with the 65+ crowd. Looked around. Thought there was more to life than this. Both hated their job. One is a teller at a bank. The other answers phones for a bankrupt developer. Thought they must seize the moment. Live life for today…Why not sell everything and travel. Sounds super-cool. Super-fun. Can do it for cheap. Stay in hostels. Eat street food. Go where the wind tells us… Yea, super-cool… And, bamb, here they are in Bangkok. Eating street food. Staying in a bug, infested hostel for whores for $1. And, calling this “fun.” I have to smile. I give it 3 months.

The beginning of the bike trip was to be expected. Many people. Many cars. Many potholes. Much pollution. The city of Bangkok sits on a river. It is divided into two parts. The old city. New city. So, we bounced around on bridges, ferries, sidewalks and roads all covered in dirty water. It started to drizzle about 45 mins into the ride. No matter. We’re all from Florida. We know rain.

We stopped at two temples – forgot their names. Glad we did for there were NO tourists. We had the place to our selves. Taking pictures. Riding around. It was brilliant.

Our tour guide told us the temples were made by Chinese workers. Chinese were the Thai “worker-bees” at one point in history. The Chinese used porcelain from coffee cups and plates to design and build some of the temples. Very ornate. Intricate. Beautiful.

It was at temple-land, when it really started to rain. And, rain, and rain.. And, we thought we knew rain. Our tour guide came prepared and handed us over-sized, see-through garbage bags to protect our clothes. Perfecto. No worries. We’ll just get muddy instead.

Next, we peddled down a muddy road and stopped at a shack that cuts, deep fries, ferments to preserve fruits to be sold in the market and exported to China. Got to see fermenting fruit in action. We’re talking mounds of oil and sugar. Rethinking the whole idea that dried fruit is healthy. But, what do I know…

Two sons at the fruit fermenting shack are tasks with hacking the fruit into small bits using and over-sized, sharp knife.

When we were there, one was humped over on the floor. Wearing dirty socks. Smoking cigs. Unwashed hands. And, you wonder why you need Cipro or antibiotics in these countries. It starts with the sons.

Meanwhile, their mother is sitting fat and happy in the doorway watching her sons and watching the street.

I wish I remember the name of the fruit they were preserving. It was a big word. Take a look at the pictures. Keep me posted.

The rain would not stop. We biked for a little while longer. The riverfront flooded. We waited it out in a random family’s wooden porch. These people package garlic for a living. Try sitting next to a ton of fresh garlic for an hour. In the rain. The family gave us water in bottles that were already open. I politely declined due to future bowel irritations.

We sat. Watched the rain. Watched the flood for a solid hour. It was hitting 10 pm. The rain was not stopping. We’re already wet. We’re from Florida. Why not get soaked. So, off we went. On our bikes. Peddling along the flooded riverfront to the Thai flower market.

This is the main Bangkok market for all flowers to be exported around the world or sold in Thailand. Beautiful. We’re talking about two dozen, long stem roses for less than a $1. Orchids. Lillis. Daisey. Gardenias. Jasmine. Lotus. You name it. It was there.

Everyday, budding flowers come in from all over the country. They refrigerate them. Load them onto shipping containers. And, the flowers are delivered in a day or two or three. Take a look at the pictures. If I were Thai and forced to work in a market, this is my market of choice. Someone else can hack meat, fish and fruit. Give me the pretty flowers please. Scroll for pictures…

The downside in riding in a flood is drainage. I’m in Bangkok. Not known for good infrastructure or a run-off, environmentally sensitive drainage plans. Let’s just say scary floating things were moving beneath me. Stopping was no longer an option.

Our guide wanted to take us the shorter way back for we were approaching midnight. Get ready for the super REAL Bangkok. She led us to the streets of prostitution. These streets were not for the old-Western or Japanese tourists hungry for cheap girl meat. Or, where the Lady Boys dance and exploit their new and improved bodies for hundreds of dollars. These streets are for the low-life. Poor girls and boys with no options. No way out. We are talking about 11 and 14 year olds trolling the streets looking for anything – I mean anything.

My eyes would hold their eyes as I approached. Saturated in black. Hardened. I had to look away for I did not know what to do. I’m an American. I solve problems. I fix things. We’re a fixer country. And, I was embarrassed by my helplessness. I also felt like an oversized fool – biking through their streets in my H&M black leggings, pink hiking boots and blue bike-helmet – as they sell their bodies for a hot meal. I just asked my mind to remember these people. And, they are people with hearts that beat like you and me. Remember them. Never forgot them. Pray for them. Hope for them.

As we motored on, I was shocked to see the street vendors – those selling water, Thailand T-shirts, postcards, or kittens – actually live in their mini-stalls. I mean LIVE. An entire family lives in a tent on the sidewalk. Families gathered around their tiny TVs watching America’s Next Top Model or Thai news. I saw a TV turned to an infomercial where a California blond with a flat stomach was selling some ab-fat reducer. Ab-fat reducer in Thailand? My brain could not take this in. The poverty. The Shock. And, American tacky TV. It’s hard to digest. Because, what am I to do with this information? I don’t know. I’m at a loss. I keep riding on. Looking. Watching. Absorbing.

My mind kept going back to TV and toilets. I asked our guide, “Where do they use the bathroom?” She said, “streets, parks, sidewalks… Anywhere. They shower in the river.” And, to think I buy food and postcards from them. I truly will never look at a street vendor the same. I assumed they had homes – or shacks. Like China, Thailand does not have a social safety net. Monks certainly don’t help these people. The poor are on their own.

We arrived back at Grasshopper Travel around midnight. Wet. Dirty. And, nervous. Biking Bangkok by Night struck an uneasy cord with me. Something was off. The element was out. I felt it. Darkness surrounded me. Not right. I need to get back to my hotel ASAP. I asked my guide to help me get a legit taxi. One with a meter. My intuition told me if I were hailing a cab on my own – at this time of night – a dark ally and not a hotel would be the next stop. The tour guide said of course. I quickly went next door to get some bottled water at the 7-11. I was right. People were staring at me – in a way they want to hurt me. Rob me. Mame me. Saw this look in Honduras. Know it well. Yep, time to get this wet, smelly butt home.

Tour guide hailed the first cab. They exchanged words. He drove off. I asked, “what happened?” She did not answer and smiled. She hailed another cab. Same thing. The third cab, she let me in. She wrote down the cab’s name and identiy number and kept it. He saw her do this, meaning, he is busted if he tried anything. Yea, she felt it too. We both knew but did not say a word. She got a big fat tip.

Taxi driver asked if I knew Tiger Woods. That would be a BIG no. Those were the only words he knew. He did not even know Obama. Just Tiger. Have to laugh. He dropped me off. I ran upstairs to my room and took a hot shower. Thankful I’m home. And, asked God to look after the people living on the street. What else can I do? I just stood in the shower letting the hot water run over me thanking God for my blessings. And, asking Him, “Why not me? Why am I not out there, living on the streets, ogling at America’s Next Top model, bathing in rivers and selling my body? How come I am here? In the hot shower? Safe? Oh, did I say Thank You? If not, THANK YOU. And, please, what do You want me to do to help?

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