Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Arrival to Bangkok; protests

Did you know that Thailand's capital is listed in the Guinness World Records as the longest place name? The official name is a paragraph long and translates as "City of angels, great city of immortals, magnificent city of the nine gems, seat of the king, city of royal palaces, home of gods incarnate, erected by Visvakarman at Indra's behest." City of Angels for short: Krung Thep.

Dave and I arrived to Bangkok on Monday evening, and after dropping off our bags at the hotel, roamed around Siam Center, a neighborhood of shopping malls and department stores, lit up and decorated for Christmas and New Years. Instantly we fell for the beat of the city. Street vendors were selling shirts, watches, bags, trinkets, food: noodles, various meats on sticks, savory and sweet pancakes, fresh pineapple, watermelon, papaya--peeled and diced, packaged in plastic bags for easy snacking. Thais practice the art of fruit carving, and even at street carts the pineapple and watermelon were prepared in intricate geometrical patterns. After a week of eating little other than fruit for dessert, Dave and I grew googly-eyed at all the sweet options around: doughnut shops, smoothie and milkshake cafes, ice cream and frozen yogurt stands, bakeries selling pastries, pancakes, brownies, cupcakes, tarts, jellys. We shared a cream parfait and a brownie at one of these shops and, sated, returned to the hotel to sleep.

After five days of sleeping on the boat, we continued to see fish in our dreams, and as we assumed horizontal position, the room seemed to rock about us. All our senses were off. The boat's motor and the sea waves had been a loud and constant noise on board, and now the hotel seemed too quiet. Our room smelled of cigarette smoke even though the hotel staff assured us we'd been assigned to a non-smoking floor. The room also seemed cold: the air-conditioning wouldn't let us set the temperature higher than 62 F, and we had to ask for a second blanket. Used to the boat schedule, we fell asleep promptly at 9 pm.

The next day we explored the city on foot. Our destination was May Kaidee's Vegetarian Cooking School, where we'd booked a cooking class for that afternoon. On the way there we passed a large gathering of people singing and partying on the street, and later figured out that this was the protest we'd been seeing on TV.

Protesters at the Democracy monument
We'd intended to avoid the protest, but having walked into it accidentally, later we returned to the area and walked through it for a few blocks. The protesters set up tents all along a boulevard ring that encircled the center of the city. A canopy shaded the central area: protection from the sun. There were individual tents for sleeping and shared communal tents where water and foodstuffs were distributed, also medical tents, tables with water buckets for washing dishes, portable toilets on the perimeter. Each major intersection seemed to have a stage; speeches and music performances were also filmed and broadcast on the large screens all along the street.

This musician went from singing Dylan's Knocking on Heaven's Door to a Chinese song
Anyone seemed welcome and free to join the party; there were plenty of casual onlookers besides us. And on some blocks this protest did feel like a party: people waving flags, munching on rice or soup, singing, smiling. Other blocks seemed more somber: here people sat or lay down on thin plastic blankets spread on the asphalt, possibly meditating or listening intently to the speakers. As we went on, we noticed that some blocks were barricaded with sandbags, though this was done discreetly enough and allowing plenty of room for all the gawkers to pass through.

A friendly young man gave us a word of warning: "Make sure you go to your hotel by 10 pm," he said. He didn't explain what happened at ten, and we weren't curious enough to find out. It was only 6 pm or so, and we'd seen enough. We veered off to look at the royal grounds. Later that evening, we had plans to meet up with our friends Olga and Ron who were arriving to Bangkok that evening, and we wanted to rest and catch up on email. A lot of email had accumulated during the five days offline.

Check out Dave's blog for his stories and photos!

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