Friday, December 11, 2009

0 Bangkok, Thailand

It was a very long, not very fantastic voyage from Siem Reap to Bangkok. We took a bus to the Cambodian border, waited for a smaller shuttle bus through passport control, and after some more waiting a van picked us up on the Thailand side to deposit us at a nearby roadside restaurant for almost two hours to finally be reshuffled with other travelers into the same vans that then transported us to Bangkok. It was a relief to arrive in town, but the journey was not yet over. We'd made a reservation at the Budget Travel Magazine-recommended JL Bangkok Hotel and finding it was no easy feat. Once we figured out we needed to take the 60 bus east, it took us over an hour to get to the estimated intersection, and then another hour of wandering the streets before we found the hotel at the end of a dark side street. On the glass half full side, the fact that hardly anyone we asked for directions spoke English indicated that we were staying in a more authentic neighborhood, right?
Luckily finding our way back downtown the next morning was much easier now that we knew what we were doing. We noticed right away that a disproportionate number of passengers were wearing the color pink. It was the King's birthday and there is something of a dress code; the rose-hued crested polo was a particularly popular option. The streets were decked out in flags and huge portraits of King Bhumibol Adulyadej were everywhere. Festivities didn't get going until the evening, so we spent the day wandering Bangkok's temples, which were distinctly flashier and more bejeweled--nay bedazzled--than those of Thailand's neighboring countries. Our favorite was Wat Pho with its gigantic, gold reclining Buddha. After two months in Asia we've seen a lot of Buddhas, so the luster had started to fade, but this one managed to rekindle the temple sightseeing flame within.

While in search of a dock to hop on the water taxi down the river, we were approached by an enthusiastic Thai man eager to give advice on what sights to visit. Yes, we have been traveling for five months and yes, some alarms did go off. But we decided to give this man the benefit of the doubt--the fact that it was the King's birthday seemed to be putting everyone in a jovial mood and made his claim of a special one day government-subsidized tuk tuk program seem somehow plausible. No sooner had he imparted this information, we thanked him, and started on our way did one such yellow-lighted tuk tuk pull up and confirm that indeed he was partaking in the "promotion". Our first stop was a temple with some apparent famous Buddha statue, but on the grounds we met a man (who coincidentally had lived in the US where he worked for the Malaysian consulate) who explained that the temple was closed at the moment for some ceremony but was eager to chat us up about the special expo in town, that our first helper had also mentioned. And what do you know but the next stop on our tuk tuk ride was the expo...which looked strangely unlike an expo and much more like a jewelry shop. To our credit we took this as our cue to exit and find our way back to the dock to which we'd originally been headed. We later read in our Lonely Planet guide that we'd been the targets of what's popularly known as "The Gem Scam", special King's Birthday edition. Those hoping for fake emeralds this Christmas will have to wait until next year.

The real birthday events were centered around Bangkok's Democracy Monument. We joined a sea of pink polos sitting on the street waiting for some sort of parade. Police were out in force and very busily arranging and rearranging the crowd. After a painful hour of crossed legs on hard pavement, a few nondescript cars passed by, a communal "oooooh" was let out around us, and then everyone rose to go their separate ways, befuddlingly content with what just transpired. Apparently that was the King's "exhibition". Sadly King Bhumibol Adulyadej is not in good health (he is the longest ruling monarch in the world so that gives you a clue to his age) so that drive-by was the extent of his participation in his birthday party. Lucky for us the celebrations continued without the guest of honor. The Democracy Monument was turned into a stage and we sat--again, uncomfortably on the street--with the masses to watch a video montage of the King, a live presentation, and ultimately an awesome show of fireworks. Our favorite part was when they handed out thousands of candles to everyone in the crowd and we passed along a flame that lit up the city as far as the eye could see. There was even live video of similar ceremonies going on in Thai communities all around the world! Happy birthday, King Bhumibol Adulyadej...and many more!View more pictures from Bangkok here.

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