Sunday, January 25, 2009

Thailand Part 2: Monk Bowls and Prison Parks

My first full day in Thailand was one of the most touristy of my stay, and I loved it. We more or less followed a walking tour right out of the book, taking healthy detours whenever the heck we felt like it. Its my favorite way to travel. We began at the King Prajadhipok Museum. It was free, and we were the only souls in the whole building. It wasn't terribly exciting, but it was a nice leisurely introduction to some Thai culture.

A very twisted royal family tree.

I always make fun of people when they have both the authority to create awards, and a ton of awards. "Wow, I've won the coolest king ever award 10 years in a row!" Its even funnier when they try to wear all of their medals at once.

Random cool looking gardens.

From there we walked up the steps of The Golden Mount. It doesn't feel like a terribly important place, but it was worth the quick climb. It provided some opportunities to see people doing religious stuff without being too intrusive, and a nice little view of our part of the city.

Thailand's food is really good. I liked how there were so many little street stalls everywhere. Many like this had their own little tables and chairs set up for customers. Food always tastes best when the cook gets all the profits.

Bells were prolific on the way up the mount. I'm not sure, but I think if you inscribe a prayer on a bell, every time you ring the bell its like saying the prayer. That's my kind of lazy-man spirituality. Heck, write the bible on a wind chime and you are set for life.

I think the Thai Buddha style is pretty cool. They are very flashy and wearing impossible hats.

Some ritual wrapping going on. "Buddha's gonna be so surprised when he sees what we bought him."

Random fat guy on top of the golden mount. Religious things in Thailand are often golden and/or pointy.

I saw this cool structure on the way back down. Note the pointiness.

As we continued to walk we entered an area populated by mechanics of all types. Just about every storefront on either side of the street had some sort of motor vehicle related activity bustling about inside. We were here in search of the “Monk's Bowl Ban Batt Community”. I wasn't sure what a monk's bowl was or why the heck I would want one, but that sure hasn't stopped me before.

After a few blocks Clarence and I met with this charming sign.

An elderly woman nearby perked up when she saw us reading the sign, and waved at us to follow her. Sure, the sign did say “monk bowls” very clearly, but I was expecting something a little more substantial. I gave her a suspicious smile as I followed her, and I like to think that she understood what I was thinking. The walk she took us on, zig zagging through narrow streets and back alleys, was awesome. I walked wide eyed, I wish I had a video camera, but I don't think I would have turned it on anyway. I felt like I had been invited into a very private space. Many an open door revealed people sitting and eating on the floor of very small rooms. TVs were on in more than one house. One guy diverted his stare from his set to turn to me and say just “Thai Boxing”. I saw three seconds of fighting as we continued to move. Our old lady guide wasn't slowing down and I didn't want to get lost.

We stopped at a little hut with a rack full of monk bowls. They were metal and covered with hammer marks where they had been beaten into shape. I thought they looked pretty interesting, but then the man selling them tapped many of them with his lighter. They rang like bells. I was sold.

I thought my nice little bowl would be better captured in a nice little video, so here you have it. The number 2552 on the bowl corresponds to the year 2009. The Thai calendar counts up from the death of Buddha instead of the birth of Christ. I don't remember exactly, but I think the bowl cost around $30?

The gentleman proudly flashed us an award he had won from the government, and included a copy of it in my shopping bag.

I found a little Seattle Times article that describes the neighborhood and its people much better than I can. I thought it was cool that they interviewed the same guy who I bought my bowl from, Mr. Somsak Buppachart.

We were taken back to the main road in a different, way less interesting manner. We did get to see where one guy was making the bowls, though.

By this time I was pretty sure our route had been hijacked. Surely the Monk Bowl Village wasn't just one guy with some bowls. I continued walking the way I had been, past the homemade sign, and sure enough, I found the real place.

I'm happy with what I got though, so no worries.

I was still in a very people person sort of mood when we left the monk bowl area. I had seen something real back there and I wanted more. Back on mechanic road, I stopped at a little food stand. An intimidating looking guy was grilling various kinds of meats on a grill that sat atop a wheeled cart. When something had finished cooking, he set the sizzling skewer onto a plate. From there it was up to me to choose one, dip it in one of a few sauces, and eat it. Everyone was just serving themselves, so I followed suit. They were good. One I could tell was liver from my Japanese sketchy meat eating experience. Another was a kind of a little sausage. The rest were delicious mysteries. The other customers were tough looking guys that probably worked in the nearby car shops. A couple of them smiled whenever I looked at something quizzically before eating it. Once I had tried everything once or twice, it was bill settling time, and the bill was pitifully small. One skewer only cost 5 baht (about 14 cents). I motioned that the cook could just keep the change, but he seemed more confused than happy. Tipping is not generally a Thai custom, so only those that deal with tourists are big on it.

That was a wholesome little human interaction. I was a hungry dude. He was a guy with some food. Maybe less than 5 words were spoken between us. Hopefully someone eating lunch that day came away with the the feeling that foreigners aren't all such evil idiots after all.

Some of the meats were a little spicy and the cart man didn't have a single thing to drink(can a guy get a comment card?). I popped into a random little mom and pop restaurant and picked up a soda. Glass soda bottles are still in use in many places, including this old school restaurant. When I motioned that I wanted to take it out, some unexpected doggy-baggage occurred. The old man removed the cap and poured the whole bottle into a small clear plastic bag. He then tied a rubber band into a knot on one corner, leaving a loop for my finger, and added a straw into the little opening still left.

Next on the the itinerary was Wat Suthatthepwararam. I was destined to go to many a temple, and see many a Buddha, but this temple was a bright spot for a couple of reasons.

The Giant Swing stands near the wat.

This temple seemed almost devoid of people who didn't have real business there. There were few if any other tourists in the whole place despite its respectable size and grandeur. On top of that, on this particular day there was some serious monk congregating going on. Many were seated at tables and looking over big stacks of papers that seemed to me to be tests of some sort. In the wide open spaces between buildings, then, there was a little market happening and the monks were the only customers. My favorite scene was a group of monks, dressed in their bright orange holy looking clothes, standing around and rummaging through a pile of pirated movies.

It takes a lot of nerve to haggle with a monk.

This wat had a large golden Buddha sitting inside a tall building. I sat down and thought for a while with my eyes closed with the only the soft whir of fan blades to connect me to the world.

My tolerance for giant Buddhas has been greatly increased. I'm afraid that after Hong Kong and Thailand I'm going to need to see a seriously monstrous, bejeweled beast of a man-god statue before I'll be impressed. The ante has been substantially raised.

The next place we hit was a nice little park. I was afraid that it might be a bit boring, but there was plenty of Thailand to see even in this simple green space. Apparently the park used to be a prison yard.

This one tree got the same wrapping treatment that I had seen earlier.

What a nice place to work out.

There are still a view reminders of this place's prison days.

There was a museum housed in an old prison building, but unfortunately it seemed to be closed. We were reduced to walking around the building and looking in the windows.

My favorite punishment. The signs reads: "Takrow This instrument was made of rattan. Its shape was look like the big ball but with many sharp nails inside. An offender was typically put inside this ball. Then the officer would let an elephant kick it around."

The little guys are tuk tuks. Thailand's mini-taxi.

I find it interesting how American companies adapt to foreign markets.

By this time it was starting to get dark and the remaining spots on our list began to look less and less worth the continued walking. A tiny bit more wandering while looking for a good place to wave a taxi revealed a good sized flower market. A large percentage of the flowers offered were the golden colored ones used everywhere for religious stuff, offerings and whatnot. It makes sense that the market for these would be healthy as they are less of a frivolous purchase than the average flower. It was nice to be in a market where everyone wasn't jumping down my throat at the slightest sign of interest. I didn't look like the bulk flower buying type I imagine.

This was the night of my first elephant sighting. It was cool to see one in the middle of the city, but the circumstances were unfortunate. A common little hustle is to lead a baby elephant around and sell food that people can feed to it. I can't believe this is even legal.

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