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One Night in Bangkok - Bangkok, Thailand

Greetings from Bangkok, the glittering Asian Tiger, the brash and the bold, the city of Angels, and in some circles, the sex tourism capital of the world. We arrived in the new, modern airport and our first impression of having left the third world far behind us, lasted throughout our time here. There is orderliness, cleanliness, traffic that moves in recognizable patterns (when it moves at all) and actual traffic cops. Skyscrapers and asphault, gilded temples and wats. East has definately met west. Exotic enough to be intriguing, while familiar enough to be disconcerting. Bangkok has been by far, the most western of all cities that we have been to. But then you delve deeper.

In the alleyways and sidewalks of the street are numerous food vendors and restaurants. We use that word loosely. A restaurant can be merely a women with a wok and propane and some plastic lawn furniture set up in the gutter, dishing out excellent pad thai and pork chilly. Who needs fast food, when she can cook it up in three minutes on-the-spot. 

Fresh from the market that very morning, the meat was chilling on ice, the vegis fresh and crisp, and the sauces to die for. Then there were the delicacies of the street: fried grasshoppers, steamed worms, and a bevy of other unidentifiable insects. At one market, we saw whole fried rats, the tails stark-stiff, a strange skewer of sorts. With all this wonderful variety, you would think we would be a bit more careful as to what we eat. Well, one day we happened upon what looked like excellent barbequed pork on a skewer. We purchased it at the ridiculously low price of 13 cents, which should have been our first hint that something was amiss. As we leaned in to have a bite, that's when we noticed the tiny vertabrae running the length of the stick, then the other strange features became apparent. Doug, not one to waste food, especially "meat" took a bite anyway. It promptly came back out and onto the ground in a half-masticated manner. The flesh was rubbery and gristly all at once, and akin perhaps to something amphibian. To this day, our best guess as to the identity of our mystery meat is either frog or worse, bat. But, it will remain the worst thing Doug has ever tasted.  

Bangkok is a city of splendid wats, the Thai version of a Buddhist temple. Their gilded peaks and spires dot the skyline. And their famous Buddha shrines include the Emerald Buddha, a jade figurine dressed in three different seasonal outfits also crafted of gold and laden with jewels. Another, it a large towering modern Buddha that soared ten stories in the sky. 

And then there is the Reclining Buddha, a monolithic prone statue capturing the moment he passes into nirvana. It is 46m (152 ft ) long and 15m (50 ft ) high and finished in gold leaf. The eyes and soles of his feet are mother of pearl inlay and the intensity of the shine is blinding. The mass of the Buddha is all the more enhanced by its placement in too small a room. It's head nudges the upper most corner  while his feet are pressing against the rear wall. It is a spectacular sight and only one of many on the amazing Wat Pho complex, a series of shrines and monuments that takes up a number of city blocks right in the heart of Bangkok.

The most popular thing to do in Thailand is to watch muay thai, the national spectator sport. In Bangkok, there are three rings alone dedicated to this very brutal form of martial arts, every night of the week. Ann, having briefly studied it and achieving a gold belt so far, was very keen to watch a match, which turned out to be four hours and ten bouts. Each bout consists of five three-minute rounds. Before each bout, the combatants enter the ring in full-traditional dress and perform a dance designed to show respect to the art form itself and their individual trainers, all this set to the wild live music of horns and drums. In Muay Thai, fighters are allowed to punch, kick, knee, and elbow. Punches are considered weak, kicks merely to soften up an opponent, while devastating elbows to the head and knees to the ribcage really do damage. All this is set to the live improvisation of the stadium band, and inveritably, as the fighter goes in for the kill, the music crescendoes to a wild high-pitched rhythmic throbbing matched only by the frenzy of the crowd. All the more shocking however, was the fighters themselves. Weight classes ranged from 100lbs to 126lbs. The 100lb guys looked no older than 12, but fought with such ferocity and intensity. The 126lbers were reserved for the main event. Tall, lean, wiry, these guys were absolutely explosive. Brutal, yet beautiful. In the stands, there was another art form taking place-BETTING. No doubt, a modified version of what occurs on the floor of commodity exchanges everywhere, people were yelling and wildly gesticulating. Strange hand signals flash, money quickly changes hands. After watching intently for awhile, we still could not decipher the system, and were careful not to raise our hands, like the poor soul coughing at an auction.

Having seen the violence of muay thai, we sought out its twin, sex, and no better place than the world than the famous  Patpong. It's heyday was during the Vietnam-American War, when Bangkok was a popular R&R place for GI's and the sex industry rose to meet the demand. Still a pit of sleaze, bars upon bars offer all sorts of 'pleasures' "you want girlie?" Menus of sex acts thrust in your face, "watch her write with her pootie, do embroidery, etc." We cruised the area, then headed for Nana's Entertainment Plaza, a Disneyland of sorts, a shopping mall of juvenile fantasies. First floor, sports bar/go-go dancing, second floor, transsexual cabarat, third floor, all nude and shower shows. Our first stop was the Spiderweb, recommended by the crazy Christine, and we entered this den of debauchery seeking Howard, the erstwhile owner. Now that was definately interesting. He regaled us with tantilizing bits of his past life, ex-pat former British barrister, now fully registered 'dirty old man' with a Thai bi-sexual wife. We discussed the merits of juris prudence in western society and the last time his wife got jealous when he had one of his dancers. His frank and explicit manner caught us off-guard, the story of when he caught his wife with a dancer once and then he joined it, was told in the most casual way. All this conversation took place under the glazed eyes of bikini-clad go-go dancers. Absolutely surreal. Then, we took in one of the mega-plex bars, where we watched a very interesting show, that happen to take place in a shower. It was only after we were propositioned for an orgy, that we decided to call it a night. Nuff said.  

On the cultural side, we were lucky to be in Thailand during one of the most beautiful festivals of the year, Loi Krathong. Literally translated, it means to float a krathong. Occurring on the night of a full moon sometime in late November, we traveled to Ayuttaya, a few hours outside of Bangkok, where it is reputed to have one of the biggest celebrations in all of Thailand. 

Ayuttaya was seat of the old kingdom of Siam, and today it is filled with beautiful Thai wats (Buddhist temples) and the ruins of royal palaces, all set around the great river to the sea. The wats were ruined and decayed and many of the shrines and statues had been vandalized or fallen prey to the ravages of time. It was a sad site to see. Decapitated Buddhas, mutilated bodies and severed limbs. But the people keep the spirit and faith alive though their worship and their refusal to relinquish it to history.

As the sun sets, thousands of people flock to the riverside, eating, drinking, celebrating. They all carry the same thing. A beautiful hand-made krathong, which are small flower arrangements with candles and incense sticks. All a bit different, some made with orchids, all with incredibly delicate folded palm leaf origami like designs, set with pearls. Once at the riverside, they say a blessing, light the candles and incense and set the small boats afloat. The sight of all those lovely krathongs, glittering as they floated down the river is truly magical. Then we noticed the sky krathongs. Large air balloons, with flames inside, floating through the sky, airborne with the heated air inside. These fire lamps (no one seem to worry about the potential danger) filled the sky and mirrored the beautiful scene on the river. 

To join in the festivities, we set afloat our own krathongs after spending a delightful afternoon searching out the best and most beautiful one and bought some fireworks to set off, another popular activity. All the best fireworks of our youth, long banned in America, were on display. We got roman candles, those cool tanks, crackling sparklers (that so scared me, I dropped the first one) and strange things with names like Monkey Dancing. People all through town rode around on moto-scooters flinging fire and lady crackers so you had to be on the lookout, cause one would drop quickly at your feet. 

Although our time in Bangkok was short, we saw enough to know that one day we will have to return and see more of the Kingdom of Siam.

Over and Out

Ann and Doug

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