Monday, January 11, 2010

Tuk-Tuk Tales

So I just cracked open a can of Cheers Extra 6.5%. And you know it has to be the best, because it's only for baht more, at 500ml, than the next leading competitor at 350ml. That's Thai quality, all courtesy of the 711 located about sixty steps from the hostel door. This reminds me of the time in university when there was a pizza store closer, by footsteps, to my seat on the couch than the kitchen in my house. It was close, but the pizza store as three steps closer.

I ate a lot of pizza those few months before they shut down. “The juices, the juices” we were always warned biting into a calzone. We never learned. Hot painful pizza goo, every time. Burning. And for a buck twenty five, they were fantastic. They were also the reason they shut down. No profit was to be made at that place. But while it lasted – magical.

This is my first, and probably last (so he says now) foray into Thai Beer. After my time in Africa I was quite enthused to take some time off from drinking. Not that I ever drank in excess, but it turned into one or two a day around the fire. And you're thinking – but wait, that's not much. And it's not. But – I was looking to cut off for a few days. And it has been wonderful.

However, I just arrived back at my hostel on the back of a tuk-tuk and that's enough to drive anyone to drink!

I woke up this morning at 7.30 and finally dragged myself out of bed by 8. It's hard to get out of the nice air conditioned room when you know the reality of the world outside. Bangkok is the worlds hottest city (on average) and that's just super. There's something to check off your list – seen the worlds hottest city, died of dehydration and other terrible things.

But, I had to get up. There was no way around it. Today was Sunday, my final chance to see the weekend market! THE WEEKEND MARKET! I know, right? Who can pass up such a thing?

I mean, sure, I had no idea what it was until a few hours prior to my going, and sure I didn't really care to buy anything, and sure, I had not space to pack anything away that I might end up buying, but who can resist the worlds largest weekend market? Not this guy, and that's a fact.

So off I went, committed to walk down to the sky train. It was only four kilometers away – that's nothing. That's just a little dip in the pool. And the thing about Bangkok, is that it's safe. You can walk through almost all areas, at almost any time of the day (we're talking the main area here – major roads, downtown core – I don't know about the outskirts, and I would not like to test my fate either. But, as far as I've been inclined to explore, you can walk almost anywhere you'd like without ever needing to feel afraid. And this is a pure delight. This is something that I've been missing, without really feeling I've been missing. It's like that feeling that just rushes into you.

It's like when you've been pressing your arm against a wall for sixty seconds, and you step away from the wall, and then your arm just magically rises up all of its own? Yeah it's like that.

But, you know, then it got hot. And then, you know, I got lazy, and there was this lovely tuk-tuk man, and I said where I wanted to go, and see said 150 baht, and I was like – pssh, no, 100. And he was like, awesome, so I got in. Now, I know it should only have been abot 35 – 50 baht, but I'm supporting the local economy, and I'm a little terrified of trying to bargain down too much on my own. Dude could get mad, drive to the middle of nowhere, and kick me out. What would I do? What could I do?

So off we went on his little skitter skatter machine, weaving in and out of traffic, disregarding lights and signals as mere suggestions, and choosing to ignore the signs indicating a road is only one way. If no one is on it, there's room enough for all, yeah?

And eventually I got where I was going. This was the calm, safe tuk-tuk ride of the day.

A quick zip up the escalator and I was headed to the skytrain. Think the Japanese yamanote line. OK don't think that if you've not been to Tokyo – just think a rapid transit rail system, and you'll be good. Then mark for the fact that you pay by the station (with the maximum price being 40B i think, lowest is around 10.) Making your way to the market you head up to station N8 (sure they have names, but I love the fact that they're all numbered with their cardinal direction as they spread out from the central station. If they get another line this could become a disaster, but for now? It's great.)

On my way there I took the nice, Disney Monorail tour around the victory monument, seeing it from three of its four sides, as the proud Thai soldiers stand larger than life around a concrete pedestal. Good for them. And then I was there. I was at the market. And it was not a small market. No sir, not by any stretch.

I walked in, passing people holding bags of juice. Look – I know people buy juice in plastic bags full of ice, and I know the ice might make me sick, but I want to drink juice from a bag! Everyone else is doing it, why can't I find the people who sell it? I've walked everywhere – where do they hide these juice bags?! They also brew their own juices and bottle them in reused bottles. I don't know about that, I'll trust the plastic bag, thank you very much.

So there I was wandering aimlessly through the market, passing clothes, and ceramics, and plants, and food – and then I saw the voodoo dolls. You know the ones, with the string ball heads that were all the rage a few years back? I always kinda sorta wanted one – but could never justify paying the five or so dollars for them. Well my friends, when you set the price at 9B each (about, ohh, 28 cents for me) yeah – I can handle that. I can afford those prices. I bought two – a samurai and a soldier. And then off I went.

As I made more headway into the market, I saw the voodoo dolls again, selling for 40B each. NO! Now I wanted more, but the prices had jumped at all other vendors. What was this one vendor doing, selling for so cheap a price? I will not think about the labor costs to make them, because selling at 9B it would probably just make me cry.

Needless to say, I had no idea where I was. And though I ended up with a map, it did me no good, as I had no idea where I had been previously. I walked through more tunnels, and took more turns, and ended up deciding that the Wagon Wheel flea market in Florida was probably bigger than this one, but saying nothing, I made my way back to the exit. I had no time or need or space for clothes. THEN BAM! Right into the 9B voodoo dolls shop. A few more were bought. And let us just leave it at that, 'K?

Rather than heading back, I decided to go hang out at the near by park, find some shade, sit by the water, and read. Walking through the park I presented myself as an oddity much to the delight of all number of teenage couples who stopped making out to gawk at me, and point. You know, I always expect this – but I had not come across it in the main city, so I figured it would be a non-issue here. But nope, they're just used to it in the core, I guess? Or more terrified.

I think this might be the first country I don't get called ZZ Top in. Although maybe they are saying it, and I just don't know the translation.

As I went to sit on the grass it struck me that it wasn't grass. Sure it was a green plant ground covering. But it wasn't grass. The leaves were thicker, coarser. Cool!

Seven minutes, thrity two seconds of trying to pretend I was comfortable and being prompted to buy a mat to sit on, I gave up. I threw it the towel. Man, Thailand – why are you so hot?!

So that was that, back to the skytrain, to ride in air conditioned comfort, to the MBK centre. It's a mall. It's a big mall. I was told about it by a friend not too long ago, as a place I should make sure to check out. Seven stories of shopping apparently awaited me. And after the worlds largest market, well hey – why not?

I made it as far as the first floor, when I came across a blood drive just outside the mall. There was singing, and dancing, and baton twirling, and – well I just wanted to read more about my hobbit's adventures (Two Towers now...) so I sat there are read to the backdrop of high school kids doing their thing on the stage, and the collection of blood around me. I was broken out of this trance only once when English was spoken by the guys with the mic, confirming that it was a blood drive. It was a little bit terrifying to hear my own language out of the blue.

After two and a bit hours, I headed into McDonalds, grabbed a giant coke and a chicken/ham pie and went on my way to the shopping experience.

Here's what you need to know about the mall? Floors one, two, and three seem like a normal mall. Shops with merchandise you've come to know and love. Then you hit floor four. Floor four can be best described as cell phone alley. It's a full floor of people selling hacked, jail broken, and all other forms of illegally modified cellphones. Any cellphone product you could want are available here. It's sketchy, it's dirty, it's awesome. And the floor up is food. A floor of sweet sweet food. But I had no time for that, I've been eating enough in this country of affordability. Next up is the video game section. There are no legal games here- but if you want a 140 in 1 NDS game cartridge, well then you're in the right spot. You can buy an R4 card too.

This mall is everything Pacific mall wanted to be during its heyday. The sun has set on that once proud empire, I'm afriad, but its spirit still lives strongly on here in Bangkok.

And then there's the 7th floor. The mysterious floor of wonders. Yeah, it's not to hard to find – but it still feels like finding a secret warp zone into some place completely different. The second you step onto this floor you'll find yourself assaulted by the sounds of video games, far too loud for the few cabinets. People play Guitar Freaks, or Drum Freaks, or Guitar Hero 3 (which is, oddly, the one game that has no plastic peripheral. You just use buttons. But hey, at least you won't lose in three seconds like guitar freaks.)

There are other places that let you play PS3 for an hour, for 40B which reminded me of the first time I played Mario Brothers 2 in my local mall in just such a place.

And then I found the theatre.

Look – I'd been thinking about seeing Avatar for a few weeks now, months really, but I didn't think I'd get the chance. In Africa I never stayed put long enough. But here it was. I knew this movie would be something special. The amount of coverage it had been getting? You knew it would be something you'd want to look back on and say – yeah, I saw that in theatres.

I don't need to keep living off of my Woodstock 99 story anymore, because, hot damn, I saw Avatar in theatres. And so up I went to buy my ticket, 240B. About 8 bucks. For a movie, that's good value – for a 3D movie, that's near half price.

Because I'd been travelling, I'd avoided all information about this movie. I didn't know what it was about, or who was in it, or anything. I'd never seen a trailer, a preview, or heard people talk about it. And so when I walked into the theatre I had no idea what I was about to experience.

I made my way to my seat (D5 – ahh assigned theatre seats. I kinda dig them, you know? No big rush or hurry to be there early. Just get your ticket and take your time.) and put on my glasses. I was ready to watch the film.

But the film was not ready for me. Not before I, and the entire audience, had to remove our hats, stand up, and praise the King. Once we'd watched a video of his life, set to what I assume is the national anthem, I was ready to sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.

It was subtitled in Thai, but I tuned that out pretty quick. The only thing worth noting is that, when the aliens talk to each other, I have no idea what they were saying – because those lines were translated in Thai, rather than English. Hurray!

And then the movie started, and I was blown away. And the 3D worked so well – only once shocking the audience with a gas can being shot at us, as if to say “Yeah, we still got these tricks. Don't get too soft.” And then it was over.

And it has become right up there with my all time favourite movies. And I'll have to buy whatever special tech I need to watch this in 3D at home whenever that comes out. And way to go James Cameron, you've sold me.

It should also be noted that Starship Troopers, and Ferngully: The Last Rain Forest are amongst my favourites, so by combining the two of them perfectly, it's hard to screw up. If only Tim Curry could have sung a song or two?

I love that audiences in the southern States stood up to applaud this movie. If you can make southerners connect with a movie all about the middle east destroying the American army – well then, son, you've done a good job. That and this also works as an interesting prequel for Aliens. Come now, there was Ripley working for “The Company” with tech on par with that from Aliens, James Cameron directing them both? I see what's going on here. Oh sure – you say – Ripley died in Avatar, but did she? Or was she integrated into the bloodstream just like Cloud Strife? If Tifa and the gang could save Cloud, I imagine that Sue Ellen could be pulled out to rejoin the fight.

One question: Where was Paul Reiser? I mean – Giovanni Ribisi was good and all – but we all know that's Paul Reiser's role.

And then it was time to head back to the hostel. This would require another tuk-tuk. This tuk-tuk would be decked out in colourful lights, flashing at all times, as it zipped illegally between cars, and took all sorts of back end paths. A terrifyingly exciting roller coaster of doom!

I asked the price – was told 200, laughed, and offered 100. Fine he said, and I got in. He then looked at the map and found out where I had asked to go. Clearly his price of 200 was based on nothing, and even though 100 was a lot, it was night – and prices always go up at night. But, once more, I was worried about being driven to the middle of nowhere and let out. This has been known to happen, especially if you don't buy whatever strange things they take you to (think boxing tickets, etc. I've also heard tales where they pick up weed on route. More often than not it's just so they can smoke it – but how hard would it be for them to throw it into the back seat and take you by the police?)

He checked the map – said it was too far, and tried for 150. I held strong. And then we started driving the wrong way. This wasn't terrifying at all. And I wondered if he knew I knew it was the wrong way – but what could I do? Nothing.

We turned down a back alley, and then stopped. Yeah, I was a wee bit worried. All this for 50B I thought. But nope, a guy came out and started to refuel the tuk-tuk. Then we were off. Still alive.

While the route is simple getting to the mall, getting back from it (due to the hell of one way streets) proved much harder. I actually felt bad for the guy, and started to think 100B was a good deal, because man did he drive me around for a long time. And then he tried to drop me off at the wrong street. Nope, I said, and he apologized a lot, and got me where I was going. Home at last. 7-11 provided me with the Cheers, and some soda – and then the night was spent watching Jean Claude Van Damme movies with hostellers. Blood Sport and Double Impact, anyone? My money is always on Chong Li!

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