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Condoms and Creepy Zoos in Bangkok: Days 32-35: Asia, Thailand, Bangkok

The greatest thing about traveling for a month or more, is that you really miss home.  It feels like vacation when you get there.  On the Bangkok Skytrain, Lily laughs and talks about how excited we are to see our dog, Monty, again soon.  This is our last day before we head home and we are catching a few of Bangkok’s sights.

Compared to some of the adventure we’ve had, it’s routine even cheesy stuff.  But it’s good to wind down a little as we prepare to reenter the United States and our ‘normal’ lives.

Bangkok Hotel Aggro

Despite having been to Bangkok many times, I have never done any sightseeing.  It’s always been work, meals and hotel.  Maybe I figured I would save it for when the family was with me.  I had big plans in my head, but we came back from Chiang Mai run down.  Our first day (yesterday) in Bangkok consisted of hanging out in the Amari Watergate Hotel.

The Amari was a very lucky find.  Bangkok hotels were busy this particular weekend, and the 3 or 4 that I wanted could not confirm.  I had left this bit of planning to the last minute.  In Chiang Mai, we each did some searching but found nothing that matched our criteria.  Trish and I argued for a while because she wanted to pay more and stop searching. She was tired after the ziplining.  I was determined to get our price point.

Part of the challenge making hotel reservations is we often can’t tell from the website if they will allow us two kids in the room.  And since we were booking less than 24 hours in advance, there was no time to email the hotel management.

But the Amari, which was listed as number #29 of hotels in Bangkok, clearly stated on their site that kids were welcome and the price was cheap, about $120 a night including breakfast.

And it’s a good place – aging but clean.  Breakfast is cool.  They obviously cater to international families and there is an Indian, Lebanese, Chinese, European and American breakfast buffets all in the same giant hall.  Don’t come here for charm or luxury, but it’s very practical.

Chao Phraya

Today I wen to the office in the day and afterward with the family to do the final sightseeing of the trip.  We almost skip it and just go back to the hotel, but that would be too lame and ending for this journey.

The Thaksin bridge stop on the skytrain has a small group of boats and several sales people at it’s base.  I ask the closest one for a private boat.   “You can’t get that here.  Take my boat upriver and change there for private boat.”  Bah, that sounds like bullshit to me.  I know we can get a boat here.

Ten feet away is a red desk.  “Private Boat?”  I ask.  He shows me the itinerary:  Giant fish feeding; Snake Farm; Floating Market; Old Canals and Wat Arun.  Even before I can say ‘Sure” a boat is motoring behind him to pick us up.  We get on our cheesy tour.

Do catfish swarm?

Bangkok is normally hot, dense, and pushy. But the river is a great relief.  We see faster boats with giant motors that hydroplane across the water.   Ours crawls along and we like it.

The canals of Bangkok are among its oldest parts.  Through a small industrial area we float toward a bridge far ahead.  There a man with a young boy holds a dozen bags of bread that he lowers into our boat for a few bhat.

The water over the side of the boat churns, almost violently, with the bodies of at least a hundred catfish the size of a mans forearm.  There are so many that they push each other out of the water, like they are air breathing reptiles.

The captain motions us to start feeding them and Trish timidly holds a soft roll over the surface of the murky water.  It’s freaky!  She drops one in and the swarm of slippery grey-brown skin splashes us all as it gobbles up the roll.

Lily doesn’t want a turn, but Emma and I do.  Their mouths open so wide that you can see deep inside their body.  It’s stupid tourist stuff.  It’s kinda fun though.

Attack of the trinket pirate.

When we got the boat, Trish sounded excited to see the floating market which is a famous local farmer and food bazaar conducted entirely on river craft and rowboats in the canals.

As we depart the catfish frenzy (and another boat shows up to buy bread) the capitan points in the distance and says “Real floating market open only on weekend.  Over there is today’s floating market.”  A rowboat laden with tourist souvenirs grapples our craft like the like a trinket-selling pirate.

We’ve been boarded!  But even Lily isn’t very interested in the junk he is selling.  And she’s the kind of kid that wants every item in the gift shop. ( ‘if she could only get this one thing.”)

There is a Dr. Ragab’s in every city.

One of our most memorable experiences in Egypt, only because it was so bad, was Dr. Ragab’s “cultural park”.   It was a ridiculously bad museum with ‘actors’ and ‘rides’.

Trish and I look at each other and laugh as soon as we enter the Thonburi Snake Farm ‘museum.’  The statues of snake handlers look like 3rd grade paper mache and reminds us of Dr. Ragabs’s.

Unfortunately our laughter turns to sadness as we walk through the grim little zoo.  Animals are in tiny old cages like a zoo from the 1970’s.  Birds and rodents might not be so uncomfortable, but the  primates and tigers have to be pretty unhappy.

The snake handling show is a carnival stunt with Thai men handling venomous cobras, pythons and vipers.  They drain a cobra’s fangs into a jar and show it to the crowd.  Horrible.

We leave as soon as we can.  Trish says this is what Thailand was like 20 years ago.  Don’t go here if you can avoid it.

Final Stop: Wat Arun

Our final tourist stop in Thailand, and indeed the entire epic journey through Asia, is Wat Arun, one of Bangkok’s four major temples.  It’s a fitting ending for our journey, because this Thai temple has a central prang in the Cambodian style, and is decorated with tiny pieces of porcelain that came from China as ballast on trade boats. Those are the countries we visited.

Emma runs to the golden buddha, in his Chinese ‘fat-man’ form called Budai, and rubs his belly for good luck before we head up the 90 foot high prang.

It’s steep. There are two flights of stairs each separated by a landing.  The colors don’t pop in the haze as much as they would in direct sunlight, but it’s still remarkable.

At the top there are great views of the old city on the other side of the river.  The tops of the Imperial Palace gleam golden in the setting sun.  On the West side, Bangkok’s canals extend for a few miles but the city sprawls much farther than that.

It’s a nice ending to our journey and we enjoy the hike up and down the really steep stairs of the prang.  At the top I’m reminded of how nice the temperature really is – only 90 degrees.  It’s 105 back home in Washington D.C.

The intricate designs on the prang are truly amazing up close.  On our way out, we ask the security guard to take our final family photo of Asia 2011.  Good luck for getting home safely!

Cabbages and Condoms

I call a friend to get directions to Cabbages and Condoms, a restaurant in central Bangkok that is known for unusual decor and good intentions.  The restaurant is part of a non-profit that supports AIDS-awareness and food development for Thailand.

I’ve been here before, it’s always busy and the food is good (but slightly inauthentic because they tone down the spice for foreigners.)

The garden restaurant is beautiful enough in itself, but they have kitchsy, fascinating condom-decorated, life-size statues including Santa Claus, super-heros and brides.  The girls think it’s hilarious.  And it is.

Over sugary ‘virgin’ drinks, we have a long discussion about the use of condoms.  Emma says she learned all about this in the 4th grade sex-education unit and is uneager to have to think about it again.  She shudders.

Lily, more naively, is unclear why anyone would not want to have a baby.  And she is completely confused that they would still want to have sex.

Her confusion is amplified because she doesn’t yet understand the mechanics of sex, detail that we carefully avoid.  So it takes us a while to realize she doesn’t realize that you use condoms each time.  She thought you only needed it once and was permanent.

Over on the wall is a spinning wheel game you can play.  It has outcomes like ‘-20 No Condom, HIV infection’ and ‘-10 Scabies, No Condom’  The girls ask to play with my camera and go shoot photos.  They zoomed in on ‘+20 No Sex Please’ and took a photo to emphasize the only appropriate choice from an 8 and 11 year old point of view. (See it in the collage)

I’ve saved up a little gift for my beautiful wife.  It’s a thai silver necklace that shows off her beautiful neck and face. She’s the queen and needs to be treated royally. I’m so happy and proud of her for doing this trip after all she’s been through.

We head home and finish packing.

The longest day

3:30am the alarm goes off.  Lily was already dreaming of home and wakes up disoriented.  It’s time to say goodbye to Asia and get back to the USA where we will see our dog!  Emma wants to see her beanbag chair and TV.  I want a decent cup of American coffee and Trish can’t wait to see ‘So you think you can dance’.   The small comforts of home, that we take for granted, are so much more fun after a big trip.

The flights are uneventful:  Bangkok to Tokyo, Tokyo to Chicago and Chicago to Washington, all on United.  The Tokyo-Chicago flight has the seat-back television that entertains the girls the entire way.  We arrive in O’Hare earlier than we left Tokyo, which is always cool.

Home again, but not for long

And 30 hours after we left the Amari hotel in Bangkok, we are at our doorstep.  It’s hotter in DC than it was in Southeast Asia, and our air conditioning is broken, so our first night home is a hot sweaty one.  You’d think that would be fine after the crazy trip we just took, but it makes us all grumpy to be indoors in the DC heat.

The bags, covered with stamps from the 19 flights we took, stand in the foyer. They are filled with souvenir loot, dirty clothes and electronic detritus.  They’ll stay that way for a while.  It’ll be a few days before we can stomach opening them.

And that’s it, another family adventure is done.  In the house each of us spreads out from each other, taking our customary places.  We are no longer cramped together in the back of a van, a tiny room with bamboo walls or a narrow cave.

Trish finds her gaming friends online, Lily calls everyone she knows for a play-date and Emma sinks deep into her beanbag chair and watches some TV.

Me?  I’m planning the next trip of course.   MWA-HA HA HA HA HA HA HAHAHAHA



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