Day 2: It may be Boxing Day, but it’s not Fight Night
December 26, 2009
Ah, the first day of vacation hangover. That ancient tradition. Nothing feels quite like it. It’s the only hangover you don’t hold a grudge against; you know you can cure it quickly with a beer or two, and that in an hour you’ll be having so much fun you won’t care about it.
You hope. But today, in the freezing waters of the guest house’s communal showers, I’m not looking ahead. I’m stuck, pasted to the wall, bent at the waist heaving, in the here and now. Better yet, I’m stuck in a moment sometime yesterday, 30 tins of beer somewhere over Taiwan. The brightest ideas always seem to dim with a little looking back.
The first of many English breakfasts. For the life of me I don’t know why English breakfasts are so popular. The English can’t cook (my grandfather, the merry old chap, used to feed us ketchup sandwiches with soup from the tin when my grandmother was away. If she was ever gone more than an hour we ran a very serious chance of starving to death). Runny eggs, hash browns, soggy bacon and a strawberry shake made with hepatitis-infused ice now in my belly, it’s time to roll.
If Thailand didn’t have a single tropical beach I still might have come just to ride in a tuk-tuk. We knew before climbing into the shaky carriages that we were going to get ripped off, that we might end up being dropped off at a massage parlor or a tailor instead of the Golden Palace, but we didn’t really care. We wanted a tuk-tuk ride, and we wanted it bad. Now we’re racing through the crowded streets, into oncoming traffic, mounting the sidewalk, missing pedestrians by inches, the motorbike screaming its dirt lungs out as it chugs along with sweaty western cargo.
We’re dropped off at the Golden Palace and fork over a fare that will put three generations of our driver’s family through tuk-tuk school. No bother, you’re supposed to waste a pile of your money on the first day of any trip. And that’s just what we plan to do. Besides, the tuk-tuk exchange is only the first fleecing we’re in store for today.
I forgot that you’re required to dress like a respectable human being if you expect to enter the Golden Palace. Fair enough, it’s listed in every travel guide ever written about Thailand and posted at every entrance. Somehow, I still managed to forget. Phil, Kevan, Marty, Megan and myself spend 45 minutes haggling over prices for MC Hammer pants and Hawaiian shirts just so we can cover our basketball jerseys and shorts and look “respectable” in the eyes of the Thai pants police. What we end up looking like is a cadre of rejects from a 1993 rap video. Hammer don’t quit.
We tour the Grand Palace for a couple of hours. Thai architecture hits you like a sledge the first time you see it; bombastic, intricate, delicate, enormous. I know I felt the same way about Gwanghwamun the first time I visited Seoul, before I became old and jaded and considered Korean architecture as much a part of daily life as kimchi or dongchim. The tourist hordes are out in force so getting close to anything is a chore and we’re sweltering in our Sunday finest. Marty and Phil in particular are feeling the effects of the long trip down south. Kevan, though, for all his beer consumption and layers of inferno chili from our adventures at the market, is as fresh as a daisy. I hate Kevan.
The rain erupts from a suddenly grey sky while we’re shooting the palace guards and we’re left crowded under a veranda for thirty minutes as the torrential splash subsides. Our vantage point gives us a great view of the tourists in front and the tourists behind, with a splendid mix of construction workers, bamboo scaffolding, shovels and concrete mix should we dare look up. Gripping stuff. I’m hungry, and I want out of these stupid clothes.
Tuk-tuk to the outskirts and it’s lunch at everyone’s favorite restaurant one more time. I’ll spare you the redundant gushing; it’s beer and spring rolls and curry and beer and it is a delight. During lunch we discuss the ways in which we plan to attack Bangkok on the night; I know that there’s no way I can go at it as hard as I did on the trip over so the adventure Megan and I will take shall be bent towards the cultural; a little wat here, a little wat there, maybe a drink down by the river. As for the rest of the clan, the city is about to be set on fire. They’re off to meet Phil’s mates at a club somewhere in the belly of the city, and by 6pm they are dressed in their best and itching to get at it. Sara, Sue and Ciara aren’t quite as enthusiastic, but that’s almost to be expected. There’s going to be a lot of drinking. Even Adam and Brian have peeled off their diapers in anticipation of a big one.*
Alas, Megan and I bid farewell to our friends at the hotel as they pile into open air chariots. They’re going to have fun, but that traveler’s hangover… it’s going to be a doozy.
We tackle Wat Pho and the largest reclining indoor Buddha in Asia. Sadly, we arrive the same time as a tour bus full of pushy folks from India. I take two blurry photos, three elbows to my rib cage and have my bare feet stomped on all within the first five minutes. I don’t enjoy my time with the reclining Buddha. There’s nothing peaceful about it.
The grounds are another story. It’s late in the afternoon and the heat is lifting. The hordes are disbanding, children have been left in the care of parents who would rather take an afternoon nap and the light is bouncing off the monuments just right. Megan and I snap our fair share of photos as we wander; a stuppa here, a waterfall there, tourists round and round. Missing at Wat Pho is the construction/demolition present everywhere else. It’s quiet, peaceful. A nice place to visit, though I’ll never get over that Buddha.
We chase the sunset over the horizon from the top of Wat Arun, arguably the most stunning place to catch a view of Bangkok. It’s not the best place to shoot the wat, of course – that honor belongs to the other side of the river, a $20 tuk-tuk ride away, but we’re not worried about that now. We climb up and down the ancient rocks until there’s no more sun to navigate by and we return home via metered, air-conditioned taxi. The ride is twice as long as any we’ve taken in a tuk-tuk and one third the price. Lessons learned.
You’re going to wonder what we were thinking; one day in Bangkok, and three meals at the same restaurant? You bet. When you find the greatest food hole in the world, you hang on like grim death. We break out the cocktail menu to begin our culinary odyssey and crack away down the list; Sexy Tiger, Thaitanic, Bangkok Buster, Coco Bongo and many more. All the masculine sounding drinks. Dinner is a brilliant masaman curry for Megan and larb for me. Never order larb.
Again, in going for that authentic experience, instead of choosing something familiar or appetizing from the menu, I go with “northern Thailand’s most engrossing dish.” Of course, it arrives as advertised. It is gross. The two ingredients I can’t stomach in this world are lemongrass and peppercorn. I think even the cucumbers in this dish are made from both. But please, prove me wrong; has anyone else in the world had this and actually enjoyed it?
We find a cabbie willing to take us to the Rama IV Bridge, and after much pointing, shouting and circling we arrive at the western base. It’s not the tourist trap we were told to expect; not at all, in fact. The only people present are fishermen, kids playing soccer and the odd peddler on his way home from a long day in the tourist zone. A handful of long exposure photos, a little ogling of the city lights and we’re off to the night market beneath the bridge where we catch a lady boy dancing quartet and mingle with the locals. There’s not a western tourist in sight, the shopkeepers are more than willing to have their photos taken and sit in for a chat and we generally cavort and carouse like we’re on vacation. So much for the hangover.
*It’s not my place to muse in the third person about events I didn’t witness, but there are stories a plenty from this night out that will sadly never see the light of day. Use your imagination.
Making photographs of indigenous people while I travel is often the highlight of the trips I take. There’s no better way to feel connected to a country than through the people and an image can remind you in an instant of all that you’ve experienced; the stern gaze of a Chinese guard at Tienanmen Square. The gaping maw of a Korean businessman laughing through shots of soju at a galbi joint in Seoul. The warm, friendly eyes of the Thai shopkeeper at the night market in Bangkok. These images will mean more to you as you reflect then all the wide, boring postcard photos of tired monuments you can stuff into a single album. But making these frames is not always easy.
People ask me all the time how I approach people on the street. I do it casually. Walking up to a stranger with a giant camera stuck to your face and shooting without asking is not often going to result in the photo you want. You might even get shouted at. Or kicked. You don’t want that.
Instead, approach with confidence and grace. I’ve found that 90% of people (outside of Korea, of course) are more than happy to let you take a photo, but you need to know what you’re doing or at least be able to fake it. Don’t ask someone to stand still for you for 2 minutes while you fiddle with your settings and dials. “Oh, shit…” after a miss never instilled confidence in anyone. Crack a joke, throw out a compliment, put your subject at ease and be ready to make the frame well before you crank the shutter. I give myself a 10 second window; if I can’t make the photo in that time, it’s likely gone forever. People on the street aren’t professional models and after 10 seconds their pose and their expressions can become awkward and strained. Like sitting in with your uncle for a Christmas photo. The good thing is that 10 seconds is an eternity in the photo world. Seriously. Your camera could fire off 45 frames in that time if you asked it to. In a ten second window I can often make two shots, with my own light on a monopod next to me, tell my subject how beautiful/handsome they are and still have time for a handshake. Simple Simon.