Friday, December 2, 2011

The Inauspicious Purple Train & Siam Ocean World

The following day, Thursday, August 11th, we had a relaxing morning to pack our things. During a leisurely breakfast, I met a couple from Las Vegas, the wife a teacher and husband a card dealer at a casino. I had just finished the book Mom brought me (Wyrms, by Orson Scott Card), and wanted something to do for the upcoming long plane trips, so the man gave me some of the books he and his wife had brought but finished. I really liked Pirates! about privateers in the British Jamaican colonies of the 1600s, but the others weren’t my style.

A driver picked us up at 10:30 for a cruise along the Mae Ping River. Our guide pointed out various peasant huts as well as the U.S. embassy, the teakwood residence of the former Thai Prime Minister, and the Thai Bible Society and school. Here’s a really big, four hundred year old bodhi tree, the kind that’s so prominent in Buddhist mythology. (At least, I think this is a bodhi tree):




After an hour, we arrived at a “farmer’s house,” not really a functioning farm, but a place to show tourists what rural Thai life is like:



We saw fruit trees (including star fruit and bananas), herbs and spices, jasmine rice, (which is simply a variety of Thai rice with a sweet smell, not rice mixed with jasmine) and some vegetables, pheasants, chickens and ducks all with their eggs, pigs and guinea pigs. Frogs, crabs, shrimp, and small fish live in the rice paddies, and Thai farmers harvest those too. The guide/boat pilot served us watermelon, pineapple, and logan juice (very sweat and tasty). We also saw the inside of a small hut where the movie Rocky IV was filmed:



The dress I’m wearing in the picture is the one I bought at the hot spring town I mentioned last time. Thai dresses are so cool, light, and cheap! We got back on the boat, followed by a van, and arrived at our hotel around 1:30. We wondered if we should go see a monkey show or something, but we didn’t want to be rushed. And it’s a good thing we got some rest! You’ll see why in a minute…

About 3:30 we got picked up for our night train back to Bangkok, which left about 5:00. When we first arrived at the station and saw our train, we thought it looked very nice. Purple:




“That’s an ‘auspicious’ color, right?” I asked, using one of the favorite words of our first Thai guide, Chiya.

Boy, was I wrong! We were soon calling it the “inauspicious purple train.” First of all, our compartment was near the bathroom, so it stank. Really bad. The toilets were simply pits, and it was almost impossible to use them with the train bouncing and clanging every which way. (This was a very old train, very clicketly clack, not a relatively smooth ride like those in Japan.) No one on the entire train spoke English. Our compartment mates were a French couple, and though they were nice enough, they made it pretty clear that they couldn’t communicate with us. The staff didn’t feed us. It was pretty hard to sleep with all the bumping. We stopped for a really long time during the night. Turns out, the train broke down. We were supposed to arrive in Bangkok around 7:00am, but it got to be 8:00, then 9:00, and we still weren’t there. Mom and I both tried to ask when we would arrive at our destination, but no one could tell us in English. The guide to the French couple came in and tried to explain the situation in broken French, but when we asked them what he said, the man just shrugged and said in the little English he knew, “I didn’t understand.”

To top it all off, we didn’t know what stop to get off at. On all trains I had ridden before, the train staff called out the name of the station as we pulled in. These guys didn’t. Our tickets simply said, “Bangkok,” but it turns out there were multiple stations in Bangkok. A train staff member looked at our ticket, puzzled, and told us the name of the station he thought we should get off at. We finally came in around 11:30am, our supposedly fourteen-hour overnight ride turning into 18 ½ hours on that literally stinking train, and to the wrong station. No one was waiting for us. We had to take a taxi to our hotel and hope that this time the taxi driver would know where it was (unlike our first two nights in Bangkok). Fortunately, he did, though it cost a pretty penny since it was clear on the other side of town.

In summery, don’t ever take the night train! I thought it would save us time and money, but it didn’t. The worst part is, I should have known better! I’ve taken the night train in India and the night bus in Japan, and those were terrible too. Night travel just isn’t for me.

But here’s a picture of the view outside, a flooded rice field:



Our consolation prize was that our hotel (the Royal View again) upgraded us to a suite for free, though I don’t know why. Maybe they forgot we were coming and booked our previous room to someone else, so to make up for that they gave us a suite. Whatever the reason, we sure appreciated spending our last two Thai nights in style. Just as we got into our room, the people who were supposed to pick us up five hours ago called, very worried, and we assured them we had made it all right.

Once we settled in, we hired a driver to take us to the “largest aquarium in Southeast Asia,” Siam Ocean World. The guide was very nice, led us through the huge mall to the aquarium, and got our tickets so we didn’t have to wait in the ridiculously long line. At first we were surprised by all the people (there must have been thousands) and most of them Thai. She explained it was a national holiday, the Queen’s birthday, and Mother’s Day. She suggested I take my mother out to eat, since there were so many mother daughter specials. But first we enjoyed the aquarium.

There were some beautiful fish and nice feeding shows with divers in the tanks, though all the spoken explanations were entirely in Thai. The plaques were in English besides Thai, and that was enough. Here’s a beautiful blue wrasse:



We got a “behind the scenes” tour to see some baby fish, and a glass bottom boat ride. There was also an interesting children’s area with these exhibits:

Refrigerator fish tank:



Microwave fish tank:



A “fish car”:



We enjoyed some cotton candy and popcorn, snacks I haven’t had in a long time, while watching the playful Asian small clawed river otters and adorable river rats. (I never thought I’d ever write “adorable rat,” but these guys were pretty cute.) We stayed from about 1:30 to 6:30, then had dinner at the food court. Shrimp wantons and roasted duck soup for me, Kentucky Fried Chicken sandwich for Mom. (But she couldn’t handle that either; the Thai version is too spicy for her. I think if it weren’t for cashew chicken and stir-fry, Mom would have starved in Thailand.)

I figured out how to use the sky train (similar to the Singapore system) to get to Victory Monument Station, then we walked about thirty minutes to our hotel (we got lost a few times and ended up showing our hotel card a lot). Several guys offered to take us there on the back of their motorcycles for a small fee, which I would have probably done if it were just me, but Mom didn’t like that idea so much, so we just walked. I’m glad we did, because I enjoyed seeing the streets of Bangkok at night. If it were just me, I probably would have used public transportation a lot more too, but I know Mom doesn’t like it so much. You get used to it after living in a small, crowded country for two years. I like adventure, Mom likes stress-free vacations, though I know she stretched herself a lot on this trip. I have to admit, it was nice not to have to worry about how to get here and there, instead having someone to pick us up and drop us off everywhere and guide us around and answer all our questions. I got to have my scuba diving adventure and pet a full-grown tiger and figure out the Bangkok subway. So I think we had a good balance of adventure and other people taking care of us.

We got back to our hotel about 9:00 and watched a little Thai TV for the first time. About 1/3 of it was American with Thai dubbing, ¼ was Japanese, and another ¼ was Korean and Chinese. There were only one or two channels originally made in Thailand. It was funny to see Americans and Japanese speaking Thai.

The next morning, we got picked up for the airport about 8:00am. We arrived pretty early for our 11:30 flight, so we walked around and enjoyed the airport again. Here’s a beautiful statue at the entrance of international departures:



An explanation from the plaque: "Scene of The Churning of The Milk Ocean: This scene depicts the Vishnu Kurmavatara and the churning of the Milk Ocean. The naga (the king of serpents), Vasuki, is curled around the mountain Mandara. Vishnu (the god who preserves and sustains the universe in Hinduism) incarnated in the form of a great turtle, supports the mountain on his back. Devas (demigods) and Asuras (demons) pull on the naga's body to churn the water of the ocean for thousands of years in order to produce the nectar of immortality, Amrita. From the churning, numerous opulent items are produced, including Dhanvantari carrying the pot of Amrita. In the end, the cooperation between Devas and Asuras is shattered. The Devas, fulfill their plan of acquiring all Amrita and disperse the Asuras out of Heaven to the Underworld."

Those are the kind of stories you get from India and Southeast Asia, and come to think of it, all mythology in general. They really don't make a whole lot of sense to someone outside the culture, and even those who grew up with the stories find them strange and inexplicable. Those who believe them accept them purely on faith, realizing that there is more out there than we mere mortals can possibly understand. So I have a far bigger tiff with people who deny any sort of supernatural at all than I do with people who at least admit that, logically speaking, there is no way finite beings such as ourselves can possibly measure, test, and otherwise comprehend an infinite universe and the Being that created it, especially since He, by definition, would exist outside the perimeters of His creation, just as an animator or novelist exists outside the rules and boundaries of his or her own work of art. Completely incomprehensible, that is, short of God "writing Himself into the story" or otherwise revealing himself to us, which is what I believe He did through the Bible and Jesus Christ.

This picture’s actually from our first time in Bangkok airport. Ronald McDonald, Thai style:



We enjoyed buying some last-minute souvenirs with our remaining Baht, then exchanged the rest. Our Thai Airways flight (“smooth as silk”) had a pretty cheesy safety video that made us laugh, though not quite as cheesy as the Delta one. I think airline videos are almost a genre in and of themselves. Just how cheesy can we be about giving these safety instructions, with soothing background music and smiling, sexy flight attendants as we play out these emergency situations and talk about all the ways you could die if something goes wrong with the aircraft?

It was about a five and a half hour flight, with all announcements done in Thai, English, and Japanese (since it was a flight bound for Japan). I spent the time watching movies, reading, sleeping, cracking jokes about the safety videos, and translating the Japanese announcements before they were said in English, proud of myself when I almost got them word-perfect (once).

Descending over Honshu island (the main island), we saw the most gorgeous cloud formations, with mountains poking through like islands in a foaming sea, and a rosette sunset. This isn’t Mt. Fuji, but it’s some really tall peak:



After customs, baggage, train, bus, (yes, plane, train, and bus all in one day), we got into Nabari about 10:30pm. We grabbed food at the combini (convenience store), dragged our suitcases up to the third floor, and got in with the spare key. Thapello (pronounced Tapello) arrived a few minutes later. She’s the new Assistant Language Teacher at Kikyogaoka High School to replace me, and she agreed we could stay in her apartment (which used to be mine) for a few days. She’s from South Africa, but I don’t remember the name of her tribe, maybe Zulu. She speaks something like five or more languages, and her English is perfect. I knew a few words of Zulu (or maybe it’s Swahili; I really need to brush up on my African cultures) from my high school choir days, and sang them for her. She was able to sing the song with me and was surprised that I knew it. We performed it for Kuwanza during the Christmas Spectacular at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center with all those amazing artists when I was a junior, in celebration of the tenth anniversary of the end of apartheid.

Anyway, she and I hit it off pretty good at first, which is nice because I was afraid we wouldn’t. I had been hoping she would take over my Christian class at the church and Jet Christian fellowship library, but she’s Muslim. I almost wonder if the school chose a Muslim from South Africa on purpose, because they were so annoyed with my “American ways” and talking about my faith with the students, especially when the band kids played at the Easter service at our church to raise money for the Tohoku disaster victims. I gave my testimony in front of them. We tried to pass out Japanese comic book Bibles to the kids afterwards, but the teachers forbade it. At my going away speech, I even told them that Jesus loved them and died for them. I still think the school probably chose Thapello partly for those reasons (not wanting a Christian or an American again), but she’s nice. I think she’ll do really well with my kids, and I found someone else to take over the other positions.

Anyway, that was our entire adventure in Thailand! Stay tuned for our week in Japan!

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