Everywhere But Home

News and musings from wherever my crazy life takes me. My body may be back in Illinois, but at least for now, my mind is still in Mongolia.


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Adventures in Ayutthaya

In early September, the sun sets much earlier in Thailand than in Mongolia, and faster; the afternoon comes to a close, and suddenly the sun hurls itself at the horizon, as though it too has tired of the oppressive heat it’s provided all day. As I watched it set on my day in Ayutthaya, I felt cheated; as much as I dislike the heat, I would gladly have borne it for a few more hours of exploration. Alas, it was not to be.

“Ayutthaya very small,” I was told by the staff at my hostel in Bangkok. “Maybe only three hours, you can see.” I probably would have taken the earlier train anyway, but Front Desk Lady urged me to take the 11:00, pointing out that the earlier train cost ten times as much as the later one.

I should have spent the extra $4.50.

I could have spent several days in Ayutthaya and still found things to do. The island is a curious mixture of modern city and ancient ruins, sometimes situated right on top of each other. At one point in the afternoon, for instance, I passed a school built a stone’s throw from some ziggurat-like brick structure. In America, you probably wouldn’t be allowed within thirty feet of something so old, but I saw several small faces peering down from its height, clearly quite pleased with themselves at having found the best part of the playground on which to play tag and hide ‘n’ seek.

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This juxtaposition of current and long past was part of the reason I’d chosen to come here, rather than shooting straight up to Chiang Mai as do so many tourists. I’d done my homework in planning my route through Thailand–at least, to the extent that reading the WikiTravel page counted as homework. The second capital of old Siam (after Sukothai, where I’d stop as I continued north) sounded like a place I wanted to visit, especially now that I knew it had once been the largest city in the world (in 1700, with a population of one million). And it’s a UNESCO Heritage Site, which carried some weight too.

Everything I read recommended seeing the city by bike, so the first thing I did after alighting first from the train and then the ferry across the river was to look over the rental shops thronging the island’s first street. The bicycle I ended up with was a simple fixed gear with a basket on the handlebars–a far cry from the 24-speed I ride at home, but perfectly adequate for this task. It was certainly faster than walking, and that was my primary concern.

Map in hand, I started a course that took me around the periphery of the island, marveling at the existence of ancient ruins on named, signed streets. I’d seen such things in Europe, of course, but Old European Buildings have an entirely different feel to them than Old Asian Buildings, which made this an entirely novel experience. As I meandered from crumbling brick chedi to tall stone tower, I felt constantly as though I’d wandered onto the set of The Jungle Book.

The elephants doing one-block laps were the first I’d seen in the country, but I passed on the the offer to ride them. There would be time for that later, if I found a place I was confident treated its elephants well. I also declined to enter any of the many sites that charged admission. Few charged more than 50 Baht (about $2), but I was reluctant nonetheless. With such a wealth of free sites to see, I reasoned, there wasn’t much point in paying; I had more than I could handle as it was. At Wat Phra Si Sanphet, the largest compound on the island, I made do by taking the best pictures I could from over the walls or through the gates; elsewhere, I simply stopped, observed and appreciated what I could, and moved along.

Wat Phra Si Sanphet

At the southern end of the island, my bike and I began to have disagreements. Something in the chain or gears seemed to have gone awry, and I could feel it resisting me as I pedaled. While I’m no cycling guru, I’ve biked a few thousand miles in my life, and putting a derailed chain back in place is well within my limited repair capabilities–except, of course, when the entire mechanism is encased in a metal sheath that prevents you from accessing it at all. I tried, believe you me, but the box, grown hot with the friction of the problem, would not be broached.

So I struggled onward, my gaze now fixed on a tall stone tower to the southeast, on the other side of the river. It was tall, and it was old, and it was accessible to the public, which was all that I and my deep love of high places needed to know. Alas, this was as close as I got.

When the rapidly setting sun eventually forced me to abandon my goal and high-tail it back to the rental shop, I was slightly disappointed, but not for long. My journal contains one paragraph of writing from that day of exploration, hastily scribbled while I waited for the train that would take me on to my hotel in Phitsanulok. It reads as follows:

I have spent the last few hours battling a bicycle that wasn’t particularly inclined to move. I have a large bruise I don’t remember getting on my upper arm and the beginnings of a wicked sunburn on the back of my shoulders. I have entered none of the ruins that required payment, however little; quite possibly I have missed everything of historical import. It has been glorious.

My thanks to my mother for her help retouching my terribly over-exposed photographs of a very sunny place. Had she been there, she would have taken much better pictures!

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Thailand Tuesdays: First Impressions

Thai, if you have never heard it, is one heck of a language. It has particles you affix to the ends of words to denote politeness and the gender of the speaker. It has trills and aspirated consonants and sounds I’ve never heard of, and then it has tones on top of that. It has a beautiful, bewildering alphabet (well, abugida) with forty-four consonants, many of them duplicates. To call it musical would be terribly cliché, because all tonal languages sound musical to English-speakers, but apt nonetheless. Thai English sounded to me like rain on a metal roof: rapid, with hard-hit consonants that created a staccato effect, and yet melodic.

It’s a good thing so many Thai people, particularly those in the tourist hotspots, speak English, because I learned a grand total of four words during my two weeks there: hello (sa-wat-dee-ka), thank you (cop-coon-ka), yes (chai), and no (mai) – and no, those are not the correct spellings. But with these few words and my Mongolia-honed pantomime skills, I got on just fine.

Aside from their mutual foreignness to me, Mongolia and Thailand have very little in common. One is tropical, the other cold, arid, and elevated; one’s food is known for its complex flavor combinations, the other for its lack of spices; one packs 67 million people into 198,000 square miles, while the other spreads 3 million over 604,000.

One thing they do have in common, though, is Buddhism. They’re entirely different schools of Buddhism (Mongolian Buddhism is Mahayana, Thai Theravada), but it’s still a point of commonality. Unschooled in the finer details of Buddhism as I was, I needed some sort of cultural touchstone around which to center my experience in Thailand, and so I spent a lot of time visiting temples. Such a chore, to drown in an abundance of opulent architecture.

I’d visited a few of Mongolia’s major temples, but Thai temples were another beast entirely. Most of them lacked the bodhisattvas I’d seen in Mongolia, but they more than made up for it in the extravagance of the decor. Finely carved details, temple facades I could never fit into a single camera frame, and elaborate rooflines on the exterior; inside, gold and mosaics prevailed. Thai, it seemed to me, is the Baroque of Buddhist temples.

To the locals, I’m sure this eventually fades into the background, in the same way that the Grand Canyon is just a backdrop when it abuts your backyard. But to me, it was all shiny and new (and did I mention shiny?), and I have a couple hundred temple pictures to show for it.

None of them do the experience a lick of justice.


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Thailand Tuesdays: Zoom Zoom

Zoom zoom.

I’m pretty sure my Uncle Mike has written this at the close of the written message on every card I’ve ever received from him. He says it aloud too, on the phone and in person, usually as we finish discussing something that’s happened since the last time we talked. It’s his verbal representation of the passage of time—a self-deprecating reference to the fact that his household’s Christmas cards typically get mailed in April, perhaps, but a more broadly applicable statement as well. When you live several hundred miles from your extended family, it’s all too easy to let several months go by in between conversations with them.

Zoom, zoom. That’s the phrase that comes to mind when I contemplate the date. A year ago, I had just arrived in Thailand for a visa run vacation utterly unlike the life I’d been living in Mongolia. It hardly seems possible that an entire year has gone by since then, but according to the calendar, it must be so. To think: a whole year, and I still haven’t written anything here about my two weeks in Southeast Asia. Shame on me.

But I spent last Sunday working out a writing plan for the month, and so I’m introducing a Thai Tuesdays series to get those stories out of my head and onto this blog. It’s high time I told you about the monkeys, the elephants, the food—oh man, the food. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

Why Thailand?

A lot of seasoned travelers seem to regard Thailand with a certain degree of scorn. Thailand is where the tourists go. And it’s true, they do—they have for many years, and in great numbers. After so many years as a tourist destination, a lot of the paths to, from, and through Thailand have been worn pretty smooth. A quick Google search will show you several Thai-language phrasebook apps, though you can traverse the country without ever learning more than “hello” and “thank you.” The Lonely Planet guidebook on Thailand is a whopping EIGHT HUNDRED pages long, nearly three times the length of the Mongolian edition. Everyone has heard of Bangkok and Phuket, if only in reference to the vaguely dirty sound of the names in English. If you’re looking, as my generation so often is, to blaze entirely new trails, Thailand is blasé.

But I had just spent a year in a country 80% of Americans probably couldn’t place on a map, where the roads were mostly unpaved and the language, at least to the rest of the world, mostly unknown. Trailblazing 24/7 is exhausting, and while I pride myself on my ability to rough it, I was looking forward to smoother paths.

I don’t even mean that metaphorically. I went to Thailand, in large part, because I knew it had widespread paved roads and the infrastructure that accompanies them. If this was my vacation, I wanted to take it in a place where travel could be said to zoom rather than bump bump shake.

I was not disappointed.