06 August 2006


I had my alarm set for 6:30 but woke up at 6 and wasn’t going to go back to sleep so I got up, showered, dressed and went to breakfast at the hotel “coffee shop.” I say “coffee shop” because that’s what they called it but it was way too fancy to be a mere coffee shop. The breakfast buffet was HUGE…one very large service island and 4 or 5 slightly smaller ones. There were your traditional breakfast foods (cereal, fruit, cheese, bread, yogurt and 6 kinds of juices, including watermelon) plus regular meal type foods of the Thai, Chinese, Japanese, American, Hawaiian, etc. persuasions. I had some egg casserole stuff, lots of fruit, some cheese and OJ.

Before going down for breakfast, I looked for an iron in the room so I could press my class clothes…they really needed it. But there wasn’t one in the room so I put everything that needed it in a laundry bag for the hotel staff to press. I had 3 shirts, 1 pair pants, 1 dress and 2 skirts ironed for 835.67 Baht (about $22…includes 10% service charge and 7% VAT). They were hanging, neatly pressed in my closet when I got back. They did a really good job.

I met up with Philip, Dave, Max (former Pioneer agronomist) and Pong (woman from the office who will be in my training) in the lobby to head out for our day of sightseeing. We headed to Ayutthaya, the former capital city of Thailand. On the way, we stopped at a convenience store to get some bottled water. Dave and I got a 12-pack of bottles for 75 Baht (about $2) and a couple of chilled bottles for the road for 9 Baht each (about 20 cents). Gas costs about 27 to 30 Baht per liter (a squidge less than $4/gal). They also sell ethanol, only there it’s made from cassava instead of corn.

The day started out cloudy, which we didn’t really appreciate until we got out of the car and it got sunny occasionally. When the sun came out it got really hot in a hurry.

In Ayutthaya, we stopped to get wat (temple) guides then went to the elephant palace. For 20 Baht you could buy a small basket of sugar cane chunks and pellet packs to feed the elephants. We fed a baby elephant and watched it do some tricks then went on to ride the big ones for 200 Baht (~$5). You climb up a little tower that gets you even with the elephant’s back then you step onto its back and sit in the howdah (padded bench you sit on under a sun umbrella). Your mahout (elephant handler/driver) then takes you out along a small waterway, past some temple ruins, across a street and out to a body of water with some more temples nearby. It’s not a long ride but it is scenic.

The mahouts definitely get the best ride. They’re sitting on the elephant’s head/neck and hardly move around at all. But sitting in the howdah on the elephant’s back you roll from side to side with each step. Pretty much all the pictures I took from the back of a moving elephant came out blurry or of something I wasn’t really trying to aim at because it was so hard to hold the camera still.

When we got off the elephants we were plied with photos taken of us and then the exit through the gift shop. I succumbed to a small black elephant-with-baby carving and a couple of notebooks made of “100% elephant dung.” (450 Baht total)

We saw the ruins of several wats after that. Admission for farang (foreigners) was 30 Baht. Admission for locals is 10 Baht.

Ayutthaya was the original capital of Thailand, until about 400 years ago. While still the capital, the Burmese invaded in 1765 and pretty much burned it to the ground, destroying a large part of the city and all the temples. The wats we saw were all more or less destroyed by the Burmese during that time. They occupied Thailand for 40 years or so until the Thais kicked them out again. After that, the capital was moved to Bangkok in 1782.

We passed by some trinket and fruit vendor stalls and there was not a single fruit I recognized. We tried pamelo, which looks like an enormous, green, slightly pear-shaped grapefruit. The rind is pithier and falls off the fruit better than a grapefruit. The fruit looks a lot like white grapefruit. It wasn’t particularly juicy for all that and it had a vaguely citrus-y taste…neither as tart as a grapefruit nor as sweet as an orange. It was actually rather bland.

There was a pile of durian …larger than the pamelos with a hard, cone-spiked exterior. You have to handle them with gloves. The vendor cut one open while we were there with a small machete. There’s a lot of inedible, fibrous pith inside the spikes that contain 4 or 5 edible sections. They’re a yellowish-cream color and shaped like squat bananas. In the car on the way here, Philip was talking about them and described them as smelling like “garbage-y onion” but said they tasted a lot better than they smelled. The spiky outside of the fruit didn’t have much of a smell and I didn’t get close enough to the actual edible part to say one way or the other.

Pong bought a kilo of longan which she shared with us. Longans look like small, round white potatoes only they grow in clusters like grapes from a tree. To eat them, you put your thumbnails together against the skin and pry it apart. The skin pops right off leaving a smooth, clearish fruit that you pop in your mouth right from the skin. There’s a smooth, shiny, black pip near the stem end that you spit out. It’s sweet and juicy and very tasty!

We also had some rambutan …among ourselves, called “that hairy fruit.” The fruits are sort of egg shaped and sized. The peel is mostly red with a lot of ¾ inch tendril-like ‘hairs’ covering it. The hairs start out red near the base but are a pale yellow-green near the tips. You eat them in the same way you do longans…pry apart the skin with your thumbnails and the fruit pops right out. It’s the same sort of clear-white color as the longan and is similarly juicy and sweet. However, the pit in the rambutan is more almond shaped and clings to the fruit. You don’t want to get too vigorous about chewing off the fruit as there is a thin, fibrous skin over the pit that is kind of astringent if you get into it.

At this vendor stop, I bought a fish mobile made from ti leaves and intricately painted. I haggled the vendor down to 200 Baht for it. Pong said they hang these over baby cribs to entertain the wee ones. I thought I’d hang it in my atrium to swim in the breezes there…if I can get it home without crushing it. It’s a fairly large fish with 3 strands of smaller fish hanging down from it…all in deep red and metallic gold.

Around noon Pong and Max took us to a restaurant along the Lopburi River. Lucky for us, the menus consisted mostly of pictures of dishes so that it wasn’t so critical that we be able to read Thai or understand the English translations of the dish names (if you don’t know what it means, ”tom yam kai” doesn’t make any more sense than the Thai characters for it). Nonetheless, we let Pong order for all of us. We had tom-yam soup with shrimp (tom-YUM!), roasted prawns (the biggest I think I’ve ever seen…complete with head, legs, long skinny pincer arms and eyestalks), some sort of green leafy vegetable with mushrooms in a light brown sauce, and some fish cake-like things. It was all very tasty, even if I have no idea what most of it was.

While we ate, we watched the boats on the river. Mostly they were ‘long-tail’ boats (long, narrow, wooden boats with a car engine mounted toward the back and a long straight drive shaft extending into the water to drive the propeller) but also some dinner-cruise type tourist boats and multi-part barges loaded with sand headed to the city.

When the barge first started past the restaurant, we wondered how it was going to negotiate the turn without hitting the bank on the far side of the turn. Then the back of the barge came into sight and we figured it out. The barges had tugboats at both ends. The front tug would pull the barge chain downstream and the back tug would come into play when the barge needed to negotiate a turn. It would pull upstream on the caboose end to keep it from slamming into the outside bank of the turn. It works. As twisty as the river is, that back tug is kept very busy!
After lunch, we headed back to Bangkok and dropped stuff off at the hotel before heading to the weekend market at Chatuchak by subway.

The Chatuchak market is like the local farmers market only on atomic steroids. It’s in a park that covers 190 rais (35 acres) and the more than 8,000 vendor booths are packed in under a huge roof or spilling out into outdoor aisles. This is where a lot of the locals shop, in addition to tourists, so it has everything you could possibly want from staple home items like toilet paper or detergent to exotic (and endangered) animals (alive or dead for the pot or pets).

At times, it was very claustrophobic inside…the chaos, the press of people, the heat, the lack of air moving, not being able to see much past the next booth. I’m not claustrophobic to begin with but there were moments...

Philip was looking for silk for his wife. Dave was looking for whatever. I ended up with a couple of pillowcases (200 Baht), a placemats/chopsticks set (200 Baht), a scarf (100 Baht) and some incense (100 Baht).

Dave and I had planned to come here on our own before Pong and Max offered to take us out for the day. I was really glad we had them with us. They shepherded us through the subway system (very clean, new-looking and easy to use once we got started) and helped us negotiate the maze of the market. They also warned us several times about the dangers of pickpockets and staying past 6:00 when the main shops close.

The hotel itself is very high end. At least compared to places I’ve stayed before. There is staff everywhere. There’s a guy whose job it is to stand by the elevators and push the call button for you. All the rooms have doorbells outside so that no one has to knock. There’s an orchid on my pillow every night and a small fruit basket on the table with rambutans and some jujubes (look like small granny smith apples…different texture and not so much flavor). The room has a safe, robes and slippers, a fridge with water and beer in it and a number of bottles of alcohol and basket of snacks in the wet bar. The water in the fridge is complimentary…which I didn’t find out until after I’d checked out.

My room has 2 beds…full-sized, maybe smaller…a desk, a couple of sitting chairs and is half of a suite. The bathroom has a separate tub and glass-walled shower stall. The view out the window is of city as far as you can see. Up close, I look down (from the 22nd floor) on the rooftops of what must be homes…parking lots, open lots and a main street.

I was pretty well dead by the time we got back to the hotel. It’d been a really long trip getting there and I only had about 5 hours sleep that night. However, after dropping off my purchases to my room, I met Dave and Philip in the lobby for dinner at the hotel. I was a little hungry but mostly just very tired.

I wasn’t really interested in anything on the menu but ordered something and ate about half of it. The best part of the meal was the water! After sweating so much at the market, I was really thirsty and it was cold and wet! I’d ordered a ginger ale with the meal and drank that but it had a funny smell/taste…faintly like mothballs. Dunno why, but I stuck to water after that.
After supper I got some of the bottles of water Dave and I bought earlier then headed to my room. En route, Philip and I met Ashraf and Sajid, the students from Pakistan, in the hallway. Philip introduced us then they headed down to dinner and I went to my room to shower and crash.