Thursday, February 14, 2008

A Rose is a Rose is a Rose

Bangkok has gone mad with roses for Valentine's Day. They're on sale everywhere at inflated prices (50 baht -- about $1.25 -- per rose compared to the usual 10 baht). Even the streetwalkers are holding roses in their hands to entice potential customers. I gave my love a card this morning and have promised to take her to dinner tonight. But even better, we are going on the train to Hua Hin tomorrow morning for a three-day weekend in the resort city on the Gulf of Thailand. On this holiday for lovers, The Nation and the Bangkok Post report today, the morality police will "patrol love motels and other night entertainments throughout the country to ensure owners do not allow underage lovers to use the facilities for sex." In Phichit, public-health officials yesterday handed out condoms after a survey showed that a number of teenagers plan to have sex today. An education official in charge of monitoring student behavior in Khon Kaen said his office has called on schools not to promote Valentine's Day, because "otherwise students would be too obsessed with the festival." But a pharmacy owner in a northeastern province told The Nation that many female students bought morning-after pills, while male students bought specially designed condoms yesterday. "I am saying this because I want society to know what really happens," the pharmacist said. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I finally screwed up my courage to the sticking point and rode a bus for the first time in Bangkok. Of course I had Pim as my guide, but after an inaugural trip, I managed to do it on my own. There are a bewildering number of buses, painted different colors, with differing fares. To get to Banglamphu across town in the morning, Pim waits in front of Ploenchit Center for either the blue number 511, which is air conditioned, or the red number 2, which is not; the latter costs 7 baht compared to 13 baht for A/C. There are also tan buses, apparently with A/C, and small green buses which I have been told to avoid, "because you are too big." Some buses are owned by Bangkok Mass Transit Authority and others are private. Most look pretty battered and used. I purchased a bus map in English to help me figure out the routes. When I begin teaching English to the monks across the river in May, I'll need to determine the quickest way to travel the long distance there from my apartment in Sukhumvit.

Yesterday at dusk, on the way home from my second interview at Wat Sri Sudaram, I took a Chao Phraya Express Boat from the pier at Th Wang Lang next to Siriraj Hospital to the Skytrain stop at Saphan Taksin. There are a number of river buses, flying different colored flags to indicate whether they are express or local, as well as cross-river ferries, with prices that seem to vary from about 2.5 to 20 baht. I like the river at most any time, but especially at sunset when the lights come on in the high-rise hotels and condos and spotlights illuminate the chedis, churches and temple towers. My new commute may include a river stretch as well as the elevated Skytrain.

It was the Skytrain that clinched my move to Bangkok. Clean and convenient, it makes travel from Sukhumvit to the river, via the shopping palaces of Siam and Silom, not to mention the journey north to Chatuchak Market, a sweet and swift pleasure. Most journeys are under a buck; I have a card and add 100 baht ($3) once or twice a week. Always crowded, but never unpleasantly so, the BTS (popularly dubbed "skytrain") opened in 1999 with 23 stations and two lines that intersect at Siam. A cross-river extension at the southern terminus at Saphan Taksin is due to begin operation later this year. This will open up the cheaper apartment market in Thonburi for commuters like me. Phra Pandit, who lives at Wat Pak Nam, showed me around his neighborhood where two-story houses, some facing on the klong, rent for 6,000 baht, half what I currently pay for a studio.

There are several train stations in Bangkok but the main one is Hua Lamphong. I have traveled several times from there to Surin, most recently for the wedding, and also to Ubon Ratchatoni when I stayed at the Buddhist monastery, Wat Pah Nanachat. I went to the station last week to get our tickets to Hua Hin. At the advance ticket office there was no waiting and an agent that spoke good English. Two first-class, round-trip tickets for the four-hour journey cost about $50. It's easy to get to Hua Lamphong now since the Bangkok Metro (MRT) opened three years ago. The MRT is a completely separate system from the BTS although they intersect at three stations. The BTS uses cards and the MRT wooden tokens. Fares on the MRT are less and there is a senior citizen discount I appreciate. The MRT route is of less interest to tourists, but I have traveled several times from Sukhumvit to Phra Ram 9 station to visit the large IT Fortune Mall with its hundreds of electronic and computer shops, as well as a large Tesco Lotus store, kind of like a K Mart on steroids. The gigantic MRT stations seem empty compared to the smaller and more heavily used BTS stops. A northern extension on the MRT will eventually cross the river. Construction for MRT and BTS lines to Suvarnabhumi Airport is underway.

But these transportation options pale compared to the excitement of riding full speed down a soi on the back of a motorbike taxi. This is the stand near Siam Court at the bottom of Soi 4, and there is another at the top by the intersection with Sukhumvit. It costs 10 baht for the short trip either way (prices go up to 15 after 10 pm) but the experience of danger is priceless. Women who are modest sit side-saddle behind the orange-vested driver. Some passengers put on a helmet (which is required by law), but most like me spit in the face of the Grim Reaper and grip the seat tightly. Traveling in the wrong lane is common, as is weaving in and out of the line of traffic. Sometimes the bikes speed down the sidewalk to circumvent one-way traffic. When the pavement is wet I think twice about the risk and walk instead.

Your transportation alternatives in Bangkok also include the proverbial tuk-tuk, named for the sound made by its water-cooled, two-stroke engine. Tuk-tuks, also called auto rickshaws, are everywhere in south Asia, from India to Vietnam. Fares are generally more expensive than a taxi (short trips cost a bit more than $1), the rides are bumpy, and I find the view from within the back seat obscured by the low roof. Taxis, which come in a variety of bright colors (most notably pink) are plentiful and cheap. All seem to be Toyotas. The meter starts at 35 baht and a long ride in heavy traffic across the city usually costs no more than 100 baht. It helps to plan your journey with knowledge of Bangkok's one-way streets. A trip to the bus station at Ekamai can take over a half hour from my apartment but only 15 minutes coming home. In the country, the sawngthaew, a pickup-tup truck with two rows of bench seats, is common, but here in Bangkok I have not seen much of them for public transportation...until yesterday. Getting off the ferry in Thonburi, Pandit and I took one to Wat Si. While he sat in the front with the driver (10 baht), I squeezed in the back (5 baht) where there was room enough for midgets but not real people. Pandit called it a Suburu, but that seems to be generic slang for truck bus (kinda like calling all tissues "Kleenex").

I'm off to Hua Hin with my Valentine early tomorrow morning, so there will be no news (and that's good) until Monday.

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