Thursday, December 29, 2011
Up until today, our adventure in Thailand has been pretty much perfect. Thanks to Scott and especially Oil, the experience has been rich and varied and smooth, all the anxiety and stress of traveling in a foreign land—navigating the language, the accommodations, the transportation, the culture—ironed out in advance by our generous hosts. Really, Jeff and I have just kind of had to show up each morning. I will be eternally grateful to Scott and Oil for this trip and don’t know how to begin to thank them.
But today I’m on my own. (No one else wants to go to the National Museum, apparently.) And it doesn’t go as planned.
There’s an English-language tour of the museum at 9:30. I have to get all the way across town, so I leave around 8:15. It’s not nearly enough time. I take the subway to the Skytrain, both of which I’ve used before, to a Chao Phraya Express boat, which I haven’t (it’s different from the river taxi we took on day two). I’m confident I can get there, or at least I keep telling myself I can, but I underestimate how long it will take me to figure out, say, how to get from the Skytrain station to the pier and how long it will take to chug up the river, farther than we traveled the night of the dinner cruise. It’s exhilarating, though, to be out and about in Bangkok, on my own.
When I get to the museum around 10, the English-language tour is long gone, so I wander about the campus on my own. Half of the buildings are closed for renovation; the galleries that are open are as utilitarian as a high-school gymnasium, and it’s hit or miss whether the artifacts have descriptions in English.
But on one wall, I find the crumbling remains of the sixth- or seventh-century terracotta sculpture pictured above, and I am enthralled. It is no less exquisite, no less haunting, reaching out to me from antiquity (rather, it’s more so), for its missing pieces.
In another building, one that I probably wouldn’t have bothered to go inside had all the exhibits been open, I find a fleet of royal barges, intricately ornate boats that the King and the royal family use for state occasions and religious ceremonies. Some of the vessels are under restoration. I watch as a woman manipulates pearls of putty with a miniscule scalpel, replacing glinting shards of glass as tiny as her pinky fingernail on a skid that spans half the cavernous room.
It’s about 11:30 when I leave the museum, and I realize I’m near Khao San Road—the backpacker’s mecca where The Beach, both the book and the movie, start out—so I decide to head there for some street food. I’m on the wrong side of a busy five-point intersection, though, and can’t figure out how to get across. A taxi driver sees me wandering with my tabbed Frommer’s and my camera bag slung on my back and shouts, “Khao San Road?” I wave him off. Finally, I see a white girl who seems like she knows where she’s going. I follow her.
I follow her for blocks and blocks. It’s kind of creepy, but I keep her in my sights, and wouldn’t you know it, she leads me straight to a few blocks’ stretch of cheap hostels and American fast-food joints, crowded with Thai vendors and tie-dyed, dreadlocked farang.
I buy a plate of Pad Thai and a Coke and eat on a curb in an alleyway out of the sun.
Before I leave Khao San Road, I buy a Coke T-shirt and a pair of Thai fisherman pants, which I’ve worn nearly every day since, and head back to the pier.
Next on my itinerary is the Royal Barge Museum on the opposite side of the river. According to my map, it’s right next to Bangkok Noi, so I disembark there into the labyrinth of a local market. The museum isn’t where I think it should be, and I wander, for an hour, in one of the few parts of the city, where I’ve been anyway, where I don’t see any other tourists, eventually stumbling onto a university campus. Ultimately, I figure out that I should’ve gotten off the boat the stop before.
By now it’s 2:30. I’m hot, and I’m tired, and I still have an hour-and-a-half trip home. I give up. Next time, I tell myself.
No, today doesn’t go as planned, but like the broken pieces of the statue that so captivated me at the museum, it’s enchanting expressly because of its imperfection.
In the evening, we meet Oil and a handful of her friends at the Heineken beer garden outside the mall next door to the hotel. We crowd around a low wooden table and give our carafe its own stool.
Oil teases Jeff for drinking one of these all on his own. We meet a Dutch expat who’s lived in Bangkok for six years and doesn’t plan on going back any time soon.
For more photos, check out my Thailand 2011 photostream on Flickr.