Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Bangkok, Thailand

We woke up to discover a turtle farm
My trip back home to the land of my youth began without many hitches. The forty-hour, three-leg, exhausting flight, yes, but then an effortless connection with the airport shuttle and a ride to an air-con room, much nicer than the $18 pricetag had led me to expect. The three-kilometer ride through the humid midnight had the air of dream, across concrete expressways, past where groups of men and groups of dogs collected on street corners. But all in all, everything looked the same—shockingly the same. The city seems cleaner, more grown-up, its corners spruced, but it still smells the same. The humid air is the same. The hint of eucalyptus and incense in the mornings.

We pulled back the curtains in the morning and discovered a snapping-turtle farm in our backyard—a room with a view! The baby turtles swarmed around their feeding troughs. Massive ones rose up, shadows below the bottle-green water. The algae is not filth, but the solid-looking scum that covers almost all of the water in Bangkok, the city that was once know as Venice of the east. The city is lined with canals, called khlongs, and water everywhere. The turtles can only be raised for food, I imagine, and as we took the train into the city the next day, after breakfast, we spotted more of them, many more, all the way into Bangkok.

The highlight so far has been the food, always the food. K always prefers the soups, and he's been doing a soup tour of street food—khao tom, or rice soup, the traditional breakfast soup, and tom yum, the sour soup with seafood, his favorite, and guiteau nam, the rice-noodle soup that is my favorite but with which he was less impressed, and twice tom laht moo, a soup I'd never tried before but is broth and a selection of meats served with rice. K prefers liver, stomach, and whatever is scariest looking. I went for a simple pork.

The guesthouse we had hoped to stay at was originally completely booked but an opening came up at the last minute for a full week. A full week, for $60, believe it or not. It's a fan room with a shared bathroom in a traditional teak house, on a soi(like an alley) surrounded on all sides by a cornucopia of street food, a street buffet: fruit and Chinese donuts and satay and fried chicken and fried noodles and noodles and rice and baked goods and coconut-cream pastries and smoothies and iced coffee and pad Thai and really anything you can imagine.

Unfortunately, here, surrounded by the treasures of Bangkok, I came down with a really horrible flu. It's the worst luck, really, but I have to be grateful that at least I'm in Bangkok, even though I spent three whole days in bed, coughing and unable to move, trying to motivate myself just to plug in my computer so I'd have some music to listen to. And we're staying in a fan room open to the afternoon sun, so I knew it was bad when my chills were so violent that I needed a winter hat and my sleeping bag and wool socks just to stay warm although it was probably 120 degrees inside. I went three days without eating, too, although surrounded by such a variety of options. Two days ago I visited the pharmacy and with my broken Thai explained my predicament. The pharmacist's drugs were effective and for the last two days I've actually been able to get about again, and enjoy a little of the city, although we didn't get to do any of the sightseeing I had planned—not a single temple or museum or market complex.

I'm trying not to mourn it, though. Chances are we'll be back through Bangkok. And although we barely left the guesthouse neighborhood, this little street corner has been a great welcome for us and practice for the Thailand to come. Tomorrow we're leaving for the southern beaches and relaxation, by river taxi and train. I'm hoping to see Wat Arun, the Temple of the Dawn, in the dawn light. We're leaving Bangkok's sights unseen. But I'm trying to come to this country without a rigid itinerary, without a checklist of entertainments, to take the land as it comes. My impulse is still to go to everything in the guidebook, but maybe that's what this illness was here to teach me to relax, to let things go, to see what can be seen and let everything else be.

Breakfast the first day--khao tom


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