Saturday, April 16, 2011

Not avoiding Songkran

So yesterday was my day for really enjoying Songkran, since I was going to get soaked on the way to the bus stop anyway, so there would be no additional wetness incurred. But first, I had to Songkran-proof my backpack. I lined the inside with a garbage bag as well as wrapping the outside. This is the end result:

View from the back. I cut from the bottom of the bag up to where my shoulder straps started and then taped the sides together. I wrapped front of the bag (which went around the front of my backpack) underneath my pack and taped it up as well.

My plan was to change into dry clothes at the bus stop, so I made sure to put my towel (which is small) and a change of dry clothes as well as my sleep stuff (inflatable pillow, earplugs, and eye mask) into the top pouch, which I can access without opening the main part of my backpack.

I then headed out to meet the gang at their guesthouse, where I would leave my backpack until I had to go to the bus stop. I hailed a songteow, which would only take me somewhere close to Tha Pae gate, since that entire street was basically in gridlock and soaked. Most people who noticed I had a backpack showed some mercy and didn't splash me, but there were a few who couldn't care less, so my Songkran-resistant preparations proved to be extremely useful.

Along the moat near the Tha Pae gate

After dropping off my stuff, we went for some lunch, which consisted of roast duck and pork with rice and for dessert, coconut milk inside fried balls of dough. I don't have pictures, because I left my camer as well, for fear of it getting soaked even inside my little waterproof pouch. (One of the girls had her phone soaked, even though her pouch was sealed up.)

We headed off for the moat directly after lunch and basically just got wet and attacked people for the next couple hours. You don't have to worry about a water supply, because there are tubs of it along the moat that people keep refilling (with water from the moat, so it's not the cleanest, but nobody cares). If you're along the street (as opposed to the moat), people will fill up the tubs there using these enormous hoses that look like they ought to be on a firetruck. I can't even imagine how much water the city must go through during this week. It's more or less the biggest water fight you will ever see, because the whole city is involved. Not a single person is even slightly dry. There are also people who will come up to you and put this white paste all over your face, because it's for good luck for the new year. Unfortunately, it will drip and stain your clothes, and I have yet to see if it will come out or not.

It was the perfect weather for Songkran, unlike Wednesday, because it was pretty hot, and you wanted to get wet. Whenever someone attacked you with ice water, it was certainly a surprise, but it didn't make you see a floating image of "Angela has died of typhoid fever."

After exhausting ourselves, we went back to the walking street for some food and drinks.

Fried dough that was really good

Pad thai


Then it was about time for me to head to the bus stop. Mike had to take me on his motorbike, because the traffic getting out of the city was absolutely ridiculous. The roads were essentially a slightly shifting parking lot, so if I had taken a songteow, it would have taken me ages to get there. After arriving, I ripped off the outer layer of my Songkran-resistance, which allowed me access to the top pouch and changed into dry clothing. I stuffed my wet clothes in a plastic bag and back into the top pouch.

This bus ticket is the first one I've had that also covers a midnight snack at a pit stop in between Chiang Mai and Bangkok. They also gave us a bottle of water and a milky drink as well as providing a blanket and pillow (although I found my inflatable one to be much more comfortable, since I can control how poofy I want it to be). They played Harry Potter 6, Part I, though it was dubbed in Thai and the volume was extremely low, which was nice if you wanted to sleep.

You pick one and get a small bowl of porridge (zhou) as well. They take a stub from your bus ticket as payment.

We arrived at 4 in the morning (I was told 5), and I went to the taxi "by meter only" stand to get a taxi, but the line was insanely long. It was also divided by signs that presumably split up destinations by region, but they're in Thai, so I can't read them. I asked a guy in a reflective vest which line I should stand in, thinking he worked for the bus stop, but instead he offered to take me on a motorbike to get a taxi outside. Seeing as the line was so long and I'd probably have to wait a very long time to get a taxi, I went with him. After he made sure I got a taxi driver who knew my destination, he asked me for 60 baht. I said 20, and we settled on 40.

The cab driver, as it turns out, did not know exactly where I was headed, but dropped me off nearby at Novohotel. I asked a guy in the lobby, who said the place I was looking for was about 300 meters away on the other side of this huge convention center. I had a hard time finding my way around it, since the hotel was basically directly across, so I had to walk very far to the side before I could turn to the direction I actually needed to be going in, and I cut through a park that was gated off at the end. So just after I climbed through this hole in the gate, a guy on a motorbike comes along to ask me where I'm going. He's in a suit and has a walkie-talkie, so I'm assuming that he's security for some building in the area. I tell him the building that I'm looking for, and he takes me on his motorbike.

After finding the building (which actually would have been quite a far walk), we discover that all the doors downstairs are locked unless you have a keycard, and the room service people who would normally be able to let me in are not there. So the security guy talks to these people who work at a small restaurant downstairs that is just opening, and they let me in through their back door, which leads into the building.

So finally, I arrive upstairs, and the key, as my host has told me, is hidden on top of the door frame. The place is a small classroom with a digital piano, a TV with one channel in Thai, and a large whiteboard, on which my host has left me a diagram of where things are (like the food court, 7-11, internet cafe, etc.). It's significantly nicer and bigger than my host made it out to be, as from his description, I was expecting a shoebox of questionable sanitation.

I slept until around 3 in the afternoon, and came downstairs to see if I could do laundry, since my Songkran-drenched clothes were not smelling so great. The laundry room was closed because of the holiday, so I just got some food and went upstairs to see if I could find a way to do it by hand.

There wasn't anything to clog the sink with, so I just washed the bowl I used to eat from and used it for my laundry. This is the color of the water that I could wring out of my clothes:

And my shirt is still yellowish where the face paint stuff dripped. My host in Chiang Mai says she couldn't get it out either. I think I'm going to try using some seltzer water, and we'll see what happens.

Tomorrow is the ceremony of my friend's friend becoming a monk, so assuming it isn't disrespectful to take pictures, there should be an interesting post up tomorrow. Unless it ends really late and the internet cafe is closed by then. In which case it will be the day after tomorrow. I also need to figure out my Cambodia visa, because I stupidly did not start the e-visa application while I was in Chiang Mai, so I think I need to go to the embassy here in Bangkok to make sure I get it on time. According to an online forum, I should be able to get it in 30 minutes. We'll see.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Avoiding Songkran

Today, my most important task was to get my phone fixed, otherwise I'm cut off from the world, which makes it much more difficult to meet up with people. My host's roommate passes a shopping center called Airport Plaza on her way to work, so I bummed a ride on her motorbike there. (I was told this was one of two places I could get my phone fixed.) They work for the same company, so she starts work at 1:30PM, which means I arrived in time for lunch. The food court in the basement is surprisingly close to the street markets, and the price is about the same as well. I decided to go with these shumai-looking things that you apparently eat wrapped in leaves of lettuce.

There was also a mini-aquarium/enormous fish tank with a pretty impressive array of tropical fish for just one large tank.

The woman who sold me my lunch told me to go to the third floor to fix my phone. Once I headed up there, I went straight for the maze of kiosks, figuring that they would be cheaper than actual stores. (If nothing else, they pay less in rent and thus have less overhead.) The first row of kiosks I went to didn't have any repair people, because they were all off for the holiday. I could buy a new phone for 750baht, which is really cheap, but I didn't really want to do that. Fixing the phone would be better since I would be able to keep my contacts and still be able to text in Chinese. I later noticed a kiosk behind which a guy was sitting in front of a desk with tools, so I figured he must be a repair guy, and I figured right. He took a look at my phone and shuffled through his supplies to see if he had the right parts, which thankfully, he did. He said it would be 300baht to fix. I asked him if he could do it for cheaper, and he said 250, which was fine by me. He told me it would take an hour, so I set off to wander around the mall.

As expected, there was nothing interesting about the mall. I did get a coffee Oreo blizzard from Dairy Queen though, and it was delicious.

When I came back, my phone was miraculously fixed, and when I asked if it had broken due to water damage (as my suspicions pointed toward all the splashing from the speed boat leaving Perhentian), he shook his head and showed me the metallic strip he had replaced. It was about 2 millimeters from being completely torn. So I have no idea how that happened. Maybe some microscopic gnomes found their way into my phone and thought that cutting the parts inside would magically turn into profit.

Once I got my phone back, I decided to head straight back to my host's place and head to the old city after most of the water play had finished in order to avoid getting soaked. I figured I will definitely get soaked tomorrow, and while I can change at the bus stop, I would much rather be carrying only one set of soaking wet clothes rather than two. So today, no.

The trip from Airport Plaza to my host's place normally costs 20-30 baht by songteow (red car), but today, all the drivers were telling me 200, because of the holiday and heavy traffic. I knew there wasn't heavy traffic, but maybe fares are just higher during the new year. Finally, there was a driver who said 80 and wouldn't go any lower, so I just hopped in and took it.

I hung out here for a while and then got in touch with the others, who were planning to have dinner at Riverside. The Thai girlfriend of one of my host's roommates said I should plan to pay about 60 baht by red car today, although normally it would be a bit cheaper. I went out to the main road to wait for a red car, but there was not a single one in sight. (I also was lightly splashed by a pickup truck army while I was waiting, but it wasn't too bad.) I hailed a tuk-tuk, expecting to hear an offer of 90-100 since they're usually 20 baht or so more expensive, but he said 60 and accepted my counter-offer of 50, so it really wasn't that bad.

Riverside is a well-known restaurant and bar just east of the old city, across the river. It is more expensive than backpackers are generally used to, but the food really is quite good here. We shared a pizza, which was delicious, and I ordered stir-fried mixed seafood in red curry paste, which was excellent and unexpectedly served in a coconut. I finished off with a chocolate milkshake, which wasn't bad either.

After 9:30PM, there are a few bands that come and play, all of which are very good with getting the atmosphere very lively. The music here is more pop rock than the mellow fare you get at Tiger Kingdom, so it's louder and people are jumping up and down instead of basking in relaxation. If you want a nice night out, either of these places is fine, but they have a very different feel, so you can choose accordingly.

When the bands were all finished, around 1AM, Mike and I headed over to meet some of his friends at Mandalay, a gay bar. I had never been to a gay bar before, but let's just say it's... fabulous. The place seems to be a converted concert hall, because there's a huge stage up front, and then just drinking where the general seating would be. There was a rather heavyset drag queen in a dress completely covered with shiny sequins who sang Hero, among other less notable performances.

At around 2PM, I decided to head home, so Mike valiantly decided to send me. We got lost, but eventually made it by asking people along the way. One guy, after giving us directions, even waited for us at a fork in the road to tell us which way to take even though he was going the other way. When Thais are nice, they are really nice.

I will probably not have internet access tomorrow, so I will be blogging on Saturday (my time). My plan for tomorrow is: get key from upcoming host in Bangkok (who is currently also in Chiang Mai), have lunch with the gang, actually participate in Songkran with weaponry instead of just being a victim, make any last purchases from the walking street, head to the bus station.

Fuck! It's cold!

So it's come to my attention that I completely failed to actually describe (ok, TELL me how I'm supposed to avoid splitting that infinitive) the elephant ride, so I will do that now. When you first get into the seat, it feels really bumpy and weird, but once you become accustomed to the way the elephant shifts its weight to walk, it's fine. The only part that you will not get used to (unless you are an elephant trainer) is when the elephant is going up or down a slope. The first time you go down, you are pretty much certain you are going to fall out of the seat, into the "driver," and knock you both into a slide down the elephant's trunk. This is especially true if you are small and this is physically possible (the sliding out of the seat part). Going up feels the same, only you would be tumbling over the elephants sizable ass and most likely into some poo.

There are stands along the way that sell bananas and sugarcane for feeding the elephants. For some reason, the first few are 30baht, and the last two are 20baht. I didn't buy it at first, but here's the selling point: You start to feel guilty because everyone else is buying one for their elephant, and you don't want your poor little elephant to starve after it's been carrying you through the jungle for an hour and then go back to his friends and find out they all got food. ("Little" might be a loose approximation.) It's like the kindergartener who comes to school with a sandwich and finds that all his friends have Lunchables. (Obviously the sandwich is better, nutritionally and motherly care-speaking, but don't tell me you'd rather have a sandwich than Lunchables. I still buy Lunchables. I like the pizza one and the ham and American cheese one.)

Ok, so that's that for the elephants.

Yesterday, I woke up to find that my phone was completely kaput. The screen has been weird ever since I left Malaysia, so I was sort of expecting this, but was putting off doing anything about it. Yesterday, it got to the point that all it would show was blue. It still rang, so I could receive calls, but I couldn't send or read texts or call someone from my contacts, since that involves being able to see what you're doing.

It was also raining and kind of chilly, so I didn't know how that would affect the Songkran festivities, since being drenched in this weather is the kind of thing that leads to pneumonia, but I would find out soon enough.

I had made plans the day before to meet up with the same group I've been hanging out with here in Chiang Mai, so eventually one of them called me and I set off for their guesthouse. The place where they're staying is right along the craziest street in the city during Songkran, so there's absolutely no way to get there without getting completely, 100% soaked. Two red cars and one tuk-tuk heard my destination, and the drivers immediately started furiously shaking their heads. Finally, one driver agreed to take me, and he was definitely in the Songkran spirit, since he didn't even attempt to avoid the crazier streets.

Now there are a few things to watch out for during Songkran (not that it will help you avoid them). The enthusiasts are either lined up along the street (especially by the moats, like I said before), with water guns half their size or small buckets that they fill with water from huge tubs. People along the moats have buckets tied to strings, so they throw the bucket directly into the moat (the way you'd cast a fishing line, sort of) and reel it back. Point-blank range is not a deterrent; in fact, it seems to be preferred. So you will literally have people walk up to you and dump a bucket of water over your head. The other group to watch out for is the tiny armies in the backs of pickup trucks. These guys will have a huge tub in the center of say, seven or eight people, all with buckets or water guns, and they just drive around the city attacking similarly armed vehicles, motorbikes, and passersby. Don't think the red cars are off limits, especially at traffic lights. You are stopped, and you have nowhere to run, so they will run up to the back of the red car (which is open) and splash a bucket of water when you have no place to run.

Note: These pictures were taken in a plastic pouch, so they are not very clear.

One of many stands where you can buy your weaponry. There are a lot of water guns that come with backpack-like reservoirs.

Pickup truck army

Along the moat

Attacking the songteow (red car)

The regular water is fine. It's the ice water that kills you, especially in this weather. I literally felt my heart shivering.

This goes from the morning until a couple hours after sundown. If you're not partaking in Songkran willingly, it will get really old really fast. For example, if all you want is to get a bite to eat or buy a pack of cigarettes, you're not going to be able to do that without getting soaked, and since dryers are uncommon here, that means another change of clothing and another day of waiting for it to dry. (Also, your cigarettes are going to need protection from the water. Another reason not to smoke. Plus the pictures here on the cigarettes are truly disgusting.) This can be a problem if you're travelling and do not have that much clothing with you to begin with.

By the time I got to the guesthouse, I was dripping wet and could probably fill one of those little buckets with the water I could wring out of my clothing. I had a hot shower, and my friend Mike lent me a dry T-shirt (a hot commodity these days), so I avoided pneumonia, because I'm fairly certain I'd otherwise be sick today.

At this point, my forehead was a bit warm, so I hid out with a few of the others in one of the rooms and we watched a Spanish horror movie, only the ending was actually pretty uplifting even though everyone died, which was weird. We could tell when everyone in the guesthouse had had enough of the water sports, because the internet connection became unstable, so we cut through a farmer's market to a tiny place to eat to avoid the main road.

Pa-nang, a type of curry

By the time we finished dinner, most of the splashers had finished for the day, so we went back to the walking street to buy presents and stuff.

White chocolate gelato

Girls dancing at another ice cream place

Tip: If your book/other paper product gets soaked or has water damage, put it in the freezer. The pages will unstick themselves and be flatter than if you let it dry naturally. A tip I got from my last host. (My notebook got soaked.)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

It's very wet everywhere.

After I packed up to head over to my current host's place, I met up with my previous host and the gang to have dinner at Tiger Kingdom in Town, which is a restaurant/bar affiliated with where Hobbes lives.

The food here is really good, but the best part is the live band. They only do covers, but they do a good job of setting a really nice atmosphere, and it's nice to hear familiar songs.

Coconut shake

The guy on the right had the best facial expressions ever.

After dinner, I came over to my current host's place, which is a bit further from the city, but her place is a proper house, as opposed to an apartment building, so I'm assuming any housing of this size is not going to be that close to the city center. She and her roommate are German, and they work at a German call center here, which is nice because they still work German business hours, which means they don't need to be at work until 1pm. (Though it also means they don't get off of work until 10.) The sucky part is that they don't get any time off for Songkran though.

So yesterday, the three of us met up with my host's friends, a travel couple who are from Germany and Belgium. By travel couple, I mean a sort of temporary couple who meets through travelling and is together until one or both of them leave, but I do not mean a cheap and tawdry fling (although there are certainly many of those as well). As in, they will look back on pictures of them together and smile sweetly, rather than dying of shame or starting a story with, "Dude, I totally nailed this chick once in Thailand..."

Anyway, on the way to brunch, we were attacked by all manner of water warfare - hoses, water guns, buckets, you name it. Songkran starts a little early in Chiang Mai, because it's the wildest place to be, and you really do get very soaked. People line the streets, especially along the moat that surrounds the old city, and their only task is to splash passersby. This continues all day long. There are splash-proof pouches for sale that you can store your phone and stuff in, but if it doesn't fit in the pouch and it cannot get wet, don't bring it. This continued on generally throughout the day, so you can assume that I am at least 50% wet for the rest of this post.

I had a "super omelette" at this restaurant called the Blue Diamond, deep within the winding sois of Chiang Mai (or so it feels).

After brunch, we headed up to a small waterfall behind Chiang Mai Zoo and hung out there for a while, climbing up to the top of the waterfall and just sitting around. There were a few really pretty butterflies there. Better than the butterfly/orchid garden in my opinion.

Then we made our way to Doi Suthep (80 baht/person for a round trip by red car). There's no real need to pay for an entrance ticket, because if you stick to the left side of the stairs, you will most likely not be approached by anyone to get a ticket. This is also true about wearing long sleeves or long pants. There is a place where you can rent sarongs and whatnot to cover yourself, but I saw plenty of people coming out of the temple in t-shirts and shorts.

The legend behind Doi Suthep is that an elephant, carrying the temple on its back, walked and walked and walked, and finally stopped where the temple is today. So that's how the temple got there.

Had some fried bananas first. Tasty.

There are a lot of these little girls dressed in hill tribe attire who tourists pay to take pictures with, but I have my doubts about their authenticity since there are no similarly dressed mothers to be seen.

The elephant of legend

There are a lot of kids performing stuff for tips, but this is what they do in their off time.

After Doi Suthep, I met up with my previous host and that gang to have dinner at the walking street (another name for the Sunday market), which was there even though it's not a Sunday because of Songkran. There is truly a lot of food here:

After dinner, we went to Tiger Kingdom again for the alcohol that we hadn't finished the day before (you can store it under your name, like in China), and after that I met up with my host to leave together. She was at a restaurant called Chang Chalaad (or something like that), and the chef there is adorable. You just want to stuff her in a burlap sack and take her home with you. She plays drinking games with the customers and is perhaps one sheet to the wind, and her laugh is very contagious. The shakes here are pretty good, but the food is a little pricey.