Bangkok, February 11, 2018
We grabbed a taxi at 7 am this morning and literally zoomed to Chinatown to the Co Van Kessel Bike Tour office. The ride made us feel like VIP's with streets blocked off just for us. For the first time in days and days, there was no traffic. Because it's Sunday, very little was going on yet. We were able to actually see the streets and houses and buildings. It was a beautiful morning.
We joined a family of six from Belgium and a couple from the Netherlands and began our 3-hour bike ride through Chinatown and the flower market. We were led by two young, athletic, Thai women, Prim and Mickie. Mickie followed at the end of the line of us to make sure no one got lost or needed help. They both spoke English as did most of the others in our group. We rode big yellow bicycles.
We took off down a street that was just beginning to come to life in the early day, then headed down a tangled maze of alley-ways going up, down and all around Chinatown. Most of the alleyways were paved with tile. There were shallow gutters to catch water and carry it immediately to a grates positioned in the center of alley. We passed openings to homes and got a peek inside at kids playing or sometimes we'd see dogs lying on the cool tile. Outside, people were beginning to cook and some were preparing large quantities of meat, fish, fruit or vegetables to sell out on the streets later on in the morning. Two-wheeled cooking pushcarts lined some of the alleys. On Sundays, there are no working office people so the demand for street food is far less than on weekdays and Saturday mornings when most people work. Cats lounged everywhere. One special cat had been served a cooked whole fish; it was using its best manners in enjoying it too.
Some alleyways were scary! They were so narrow! The space in the alleys behind homes often had pots of plants, herbs or flowers, making the alley even more narrow and sometimes the alley was used to store plastic crates or other items that might not fit in the small houses. -- And every now and then, we would have to maneuver past a motorbike coming our way that had just rounded the next corner in our path. We had to dodge pedestrians too and people washing pots outside their door. While the sights were very interesting, the ride was pretty harrowing.
We crossed the bridge over the Chao Phraya River and into the big market area.
In Chinatown market we road very dangerously through shophouses that sold everything from shoes to re-built truck engines. It was crowded and it was packed tight!!! It was visual overload. It was smelly; it was obstructed by carts, motorbikes, shopkeepers and shoppers on this Sunday morning. And I am not the best cyclist!!! It was downright scary!!!
We parked our bikes and walked through the flower market. The colors!!!!! Stalls and stalls of baskets brimmed with deep orange marigold blooms; brilliant green banana leaves, white jasmine; and purple clover!!! Wow, just wow! Women and young men were busy making arrangements, flower chains and tiny bouquets for sale.
Flowers are of key importance here. First, they are an integral part of people's daily offering to Buddha; therefore, since they are for Buddha, one cannot smell the flowers before making the gift. The flowers must be pure. All people buy flowers for their daily offerings. Second, Chinese New Year is approaching. It is February 16. While we tend to kick-up heels on New Year's Eve, the Chinese New Year is celebrated with families coming together to share a big meal, to pray for good luck in the coming year and to drink a lot of alcohol. Yes, in Bangkok's Chinatown, they do put on the big parades. Flowers play a big role in the decorations, the parades, the family gatherings and offerings that take place on this special day.
We stopped for coffee and were given tastes of the little yellow banana; a real treat to some in our group but by now, Stan and I have probably eaten a whole banana bunch of them - everywhere we go, we are given fruit and the little lady finger bananas are usually on the plate. We were given more roti to taste and pomelo sections. If you have not had pomelo, it is like our grapefruit except much bigger.
The bike tour included, guess what? Another temple!!! Wat Kalayanamitr temple, established in 1825, houses the tallest sitting Buddha in Bangkok. It's 20 feet tall. Please, no bad karma, but I am seriously over my fascination with Buddha statues.
After the bike ride, we were hot - have I mentioned that we are in Bangkok? It is hot here. This is February; nearing the end of dry season. And we are told this is mild - very mild! Sometimes, in summer, the temperature can go as high as 105 degrees F with humidity hovering just under 100%. Just put that in your pipe.
After the bike ride we were hot and dusty. The time was about 11:15 am. Our guide met us; he always furnishes us with a cold moistened cloth and ice cold water after each adventure. I nearly took a bath with my cloth.
Traffic had materialized by this time of day. We eased through congestion for what could not have been a long way away, distance-wise, but a fair bit away time-wise on the streets, to the home of Jim Thompson. Who in the heck is Jim Thompson??? Why he is the father of silk production in Thailand. He was an American architect who at the age of 39, joined the military and was sent here near the end of WWII. CIA?? Anyway, he didn't have much to do and ended up touring the country and fell in love with Thailand. He returned here after the war and as his business, taught the local people to convert their cottage industry silk-making to fine silk production. He was well- connected. He rubbed shoulders with royalty and also important people with Hollywood. He provided the silk for the production of The King and I. He build a lovely, lovely self-styled house in Bangkok, combining his design with traditional Thai architecture. He collected art and entertained the rich and famous. Then, while on a trip in Malaysia with his best friends, he went for a smoke outside and mysteriously disappeared. Politics? Maybe he knew a dangerous American secret?? Perhaps he knew a dangerous Royal secret?? Maybe a croc attacked and dragged him away.
Before we returned to the hotel, Pat took us by the University of Bangkok, and by the Constitutional Monument which celebrates Thailand's constitutional monarchy. It sits on a roundabout in the middle of Ratchadamnoen Avenue. This broad boulevard, first built in 1899 and re-built again in 1932, models the Champs-Elysees in Paris and links the Grand Palace to the Royal Palaces in Dusit Garden.
I know Stan and I have only seen a bird-eye view of Bangkok and our introduction is probably a pasteurized view that our travel agent conjured up for us based on what we told her we liked and didn't like. So in all fairness, our perspective is probably very limited. Maybe we missed seeing altogether something wonderful here. But, truthfully I don't get it. I see little that lives up to the hype about Bangkok. Now I have to admit, I love the name. And if you want to eat, amazing food is available everywhere at every moment of the day. Oh, I forgot to say, last night we went out for a bit of street food. We had roasted corn, a luscious chicken leg and a slice of chicken breast on a stick. But we could have had a big, black scorpion, a fried two-inch long c*** roach, some crispy crickets and a bunch of other bugs all cooked to perfection. All for were for sale. You could buy some or just take a photo. The right to snap a picture costs 10 baht. When our guides in each city asks us if we have food allergies or what kinds of foods we cannot eat, we always say, "no cat, no dog, no monkey and no bugs."
The traffic, smog, congestion, and dirt! I am not in love with this place. I do like the people though. Inn all the commotion and our touristy-intrusion, everyone was friendly and courteous and whenever we say kids, they always beamed a toothy grin and said helloooooo!
We finished up the evening with Pat. He took us to a Chinese shop house called Jok Tok Diew. At this unique restaurant there is no menu; he serves only one table each night and serves his best home recipes. This place is famous in that it has been a favorite of the Royal Princess for many years. Everything is served family style and the food is plentiful. My favorite dishes were the grouper fingers, sautéed morning glory and mud crab!!! Mud crab is like our stone crab or Dungeness carb - it is fantastic!!! It was the best dish we have had in Thailand. We enjoyed the dinner and the translated-camaraderie we had with Mr. Jok junior. A tuk-tuk took us through the night time back to the hotel for the evening. . . our last in Bangkok. Sad, melancholy.