Thursday, October 29, 2009

[Travelogue] One night in Bangkok

I don't know whether it was the heat and humidity and noise and pollution or simply the fact that I've been away from home for too long, but Bangkok just did not float my canoe. It didn't help that the drive from the ship into town took more than three hours, the last of which we covered only about four miles. I kid you not.

When it comes to traffic, Asia is a land of stunning contrasts, from the excruciatingly well behaved drivers of Japan at one extreme, and the utterly unconstrained by any rules of the road chaos of Viet Nam at the other. Thailand embodies the entire spectrum just in the greater Bangkok area. There is a splendid eight-lane-wide superhighway -- much of it elevated -- running from Laem Chabang where we docked right into the heart of Bangkok. Traffic flowed smoothly and at full speed. Vehicles passed each other in orderly succession. It was quite the refreshing change after Saigon.

Then we got off the freeway and onto the surface streets and instantly hit total gridlock. I can't remember the last time I've seen traffic that bad, and I live in LA. As I've already mentioned, it took us an hour to go four miles. We could have walked faster than we drove. (To be fair, while the streets of Bangkok were crowded beyond all reason, the drivers were still very courteous even at ground level. That is one thing I can say about Thailand in general: everyone is very friendly.)

I think perhaps too I've seen one temple too many on this trip. Our first stop was a tour of the famous Grand Palace and Emerald Buddha. The Grand Palace is quite beautiful, probably the most ornate asian-style building I've seen yet on this trip, and yet the thought that was foremost in my mind was not: oh my god look at these extensive and stunningly detailed mosaic-covered buildings, but rather, oh my god, it is freakin' HOT out here, I think I'm going to melt.

Even after the sun went down it was still freakin' hot. And crowded. And polluted. I guess if you're a kid looking for excitement, or a businessman looking for cheap tailor-made suits, or a pedophile looking for some action, Bangkok can be the Place To Be. But I am none of those things, so the place just left me cold. I mean hot.

I can't honestly say it was a total loss. We did have some terrific Thai food, and the second day we took a tour of the canals off the main river which was pretty cool. But all in all I'd have to say Bangkok was more trouble than it was worth, which was a real disappointment. I really had high hopes for the place. Interesting how very little in Asia has turned out the way I expected.

We stayed overnight at the Shangri-La. If you do go to Bangkok this is a fine place to stay, and nowadays there are good deals to be had. It's centrally located, convenient to the elevated light rail system (by far the best way to get around), and has really great restaurants. Bring a bathing suit :-)

We were in port for three days, but we decided to cut our stay short and returned to the ship early on the second day. That worked out really well because the ship had arranged for a local Thai dance troupe to give a performance aboard ship last night, which was absolutely delightful. They gave us a little primer about what all the different movements and gestures mean, which made the performance a lot easier to follow.

Today we were still in port but neither Nancy nor I could work up much enthusiasm for venturing back out into the heat. So we took the day off, a vacation from the vacation. It was really nice to have a day with nothing to do. No lectures to go to. No tours. No nothing. Despite that, the day has flown by.

Tomorrow we're at sea, and the day after that we're in Singapore. I hope by then I will have recovered enough enthusiasm to be able to appreciate the place.

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