Werlins and the King of Siam Part One
Siam it no longer is and we didn’t in fact meet the King. But your only and therefore favorite far-eastern reporters did navigate 10 incredibly interesting days in Thailand.
Upon the advice of Jake and Jessie’s YIS teacher, Mr. Weekes, we had secured accommodations at the Atlanta Hotel. Maybe the last remaining original tourist hotel in Bangkok. I’m not sure what we expected other than knowing it was a good deal. Perhaps as the recommendation came from a very budget-minded and underpaid elementary school teacher, that in itself should have been a clue.
Little Feats never visited this Atlanta hotel. Dr. Charles Henn, a Bavarian mechanical engineer, circa 1920, was the founder and operator until he went to industrial heaven earlier this year. He seemed to have a very definite point of view, somewhere right of Attila the Hun as Father Werlin would term it. There were many more signs posted as to what you couldn’t do as opposed to “Welcome” and “We Hope you enjoyed your stay”. In fact the one at the top of the stairs which very clearly and boldly stated, “No prostitutes, bar girls, friends or acquaintances allowed” unequivocally set the tone.
The Atlanta was located at the end of a dead end street which was very bumpy and rutted. The pool, which apparently was the first pool in Bangkok for hotel guests, was actually very nice. It sat just outside the “Maltese Falcon” reception area and was completely surrounded by huge ferns, palms and other Thai jungle flora.
The bedstands in our rather Spartan room were finely crafted angle iron. The linoleum was beautifully checked in brown and white with tasteful chipping every so often. There was no wall adornment or shower curtain in the “mildewy” tile bathrooms. In its favor it is one of the very few hotel showerheads that was high enough to shoot down on my head rather than the normal horizontal shot in the ear. The bad news is this one was about 8 feet high and the subsequent splash from that height pretty much inundated the entire bathroom.
Sunday we taxied over to the Bangkok main train station at Hua Lam Pong. Picture one of the blimp hangers at Moffat Field lined with every imaginable type of travel office, funny little food stalls, a large photo display of the King and his ancestors and you’ve got sort of an idea. This could be a world-class location for professional people watching. Hundreds of people going through the main area ranging from backpackers from every nation around the world to peasant families with massive suitcases, boxes and bags. I’m very sure I saw Bond and one of his femme fatales dart through the gates at the last moment. We found a great little agency on the second level and proceeded to arrange our itinerary for the next week.
From the train station we grabbed a “tuk-tuk”. A motorized invitation to mayhem and destruction. Our driver, noted by him and after taking a roundabout at what felt like 60 miles an hour, by us, as the world’s best tuk-tuk driver, left us off at the Chinatown market. A tuk-tuk is basically an open-air three-wheeled motorcycle. The rear seat is o.k. for two adults. You’re sort of surrounded by scrolled metalwork and a canvas-surrey top. Picture if you can, being towed behind a Vespa with no muffler in a two-wheeled love seat and you’re close. With the four of us in there, I’m sure the physics were changed from normal loads. Particularly since my head was up so high and into the canvas top that I had a great ride looking at feet, tires and manhole covers. Rushing air, lots of noise, unbelievable fumes, horns honking, trucks rumbling up beside us and real issues about feeling we could flip anytime…but the tuk-tuk gods were watching over us.
We’ve seen more than a few food markets in Asia but the Bangkok Chinatown market may have jumped to the top five of the list of ones with weird things for sale; teriyaki chicken feet, stomachs, many mystery fish and other briny creatures. The market was a warren of small alleyways, most about 5 feet across with vendors lining both sides. There wasn’t the same clamoring and grabbing of your sleeve as we’ve had elsewhere. So no need to dodge the vendors but getting through the other customers was a chore. From the market we “tuk’d” down to the river for a boat tour of Bangkok.
The river has an amazing amount of traffic. It so happened we picked a manatee-type boat. Just like a big john-boat but all wood with a canopy and maybe 5-6 inches of freeboard. What we missed was getting one of the Ferrari types. They’re long sleek crafts powered by an auto engine sitting on an elevated platform in the stern of the boat. From the engine a 20-foot drive shaft disappears into the waterway out behind the boat with a very high-speed propeller on the end. When these things get moving through the water, the prop kicks up a nice rooster tail and man do they fly.
In our freighter, it took almost two hours to make the big looping circuit through the Bangkok waterways. I think the top-fuel eliminators probably did it in 30-45 minutes. We didn’t see any nice 3 bedroom, 2 bath, full garage type residences. Collapsing wood frame houses on rotting stilts with moss and garbage everywhere was much more the order of the day. There were lots of kids playing and swimming in the beautiful brown, “sewagey” water…one guy, bare-chested and submerged to his waist, was even brushing his pearly whites in the river. I couldn’t do it.
Midway, we stopped at a snake farm. Cobras, kraits, pythons, racers and others. Several chaps, who in my opinion are not great life insurance risks, slapped the snakes awake, encouraged them to hiss, spit and strike and in one sequence knelt down and grabbed the snake just behind the head with his teeth. Then stood up holding the snake in his mouth. It makes the swing shift at McDonald’s look a little easier. Jessie had a 15 foot python draped around her shoulders. Jake took the fifth…no way!
For dinner we journeyed to the polar opposite of what we were doing and seeing all day. It was a dinner and traditional Thai dancing at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. In Asia, these are some of the most luxurious and upscale hotels. From rotting shacks falling off their pilings, reeking of garbage, sewage and filth to the polished marble walkways and walls, a fleet of light tan Mercedes for hotel guests and lovely gowned hostesses whose only job was to open the door for you. 100 yards on the river but light years in quality of existence. Dinner was superb. Thai cuisine is one of the finest worldwide. Spicy and hot, sweet, great use of lime and coconut…we ate like we’d gone without for a week. Never one to be content with merely tickling fate, we tuk-tuk’d back to the ostentatious Atlanta; a half hour of thrills just before bed.
Sunday saw us up at 5:30 so we could make the 2 hour taxi ride to the Floating Market. At the market, you get in long, narrow “canoes”, 15′ long and maybe 20″ wide. You’re paddled and poled throughout an entire marketplace with most of the vendors only accessible by water. The vendors are all at boat level so you just sit in the boat with your best negotiating hat on. Moving up and down the waterways are other boats selling hot food, cold drinks, vegetables, you name it. Later in the day it’s very “touristy” but early in the morning the Thai people are buying their supplies, breakfasts, etc. and is very fun to watch and listen. One guy had a monkey you could hold and feed a bottle to so you could take a picture for 10 baht, just a touch under 20 cents. You want an inexpensive vacation? Dinner entrees, pad thai or sweet and sour chicken/pork for 80 baht, $1.75. We could easily eat a huge dinner for four with a couple of beers for the elders for around $10.00 total. A liter of bottled water was 10 baht…a quarter. What a deal!
From the floating market to the crocodile farm ï¿½ we’re guessing maybe 400-500 crocodiles in big cement ponds generally organized by age. One pool had albino crocodiles and another of two Crocodile Mississippianeous, our own southern US beauties. The park also featured elephants, monkeys and an orchid farm. I think the orchid farm was the best of all.
Our driver was a very friendly guy who popped right up with English. The question was and still remains what kind of English it was.
Claudia ï¿½ “Nice weather today.”
Our driver ï¿½ “More taffy outside?”
If anyone recognizes the dialect, please let us know. He was very amiable and reasonably accurate in his estimations of time. But other info was a bit shaky.
Back to Bangkok and on to old #83, the Bangkokï¿½Trang overnight train. We took two connected sleeper berths, each with a foldout upper bunk. Picture the climax scenes in “From Russia with Love” with Sean Connery and you’ve got our overnight accommodations. I again looked for Bond ï¿½ maybe he stayed in the dining car. 12 hours and 2 berths per closet; not real big. From the window side of the train to our inside door wall was 6 feet. Measured exactly with the small knot on my 6’3″ head. Our conductor was very diligent in waking us up at 4:30 a.m. In his t-shirt and shorts no less. No complaints however as we stepped off into Saurat Thani. A Thai version of a 1940s depression train stop in East Jesus, Oklahoma.
The station faced a one-way street lined on the other side with a couple of small eateries and machine shop and a parts dealer. We were greeted by a couple of insistent
Maitre’ds all asking where we were headed, what they could do for us, etc. Our chosen fellow steered us pretty well although finally getting on the right bus turned out to be a real exercise. We had a leisurely bacon and egg breakfast, in the dark, out on the sidewalk table complete with a definite pirated recording of John Denver, The Who and Crosby, Stills and Nash. Later we called “Nid”, our hostess at Art’s Jungle River View Treehouse Lodge (I think I got all the names in there) and got the skinny on what to do to catch the right bus. “Grab the 7:50 local bus to Phuket” and she’ll meet us at the Khao Sok stop just beyond the 109 kilometer marker.
OK….The first step was to find the bus station and ticket window. Silly us looking for some sort of official building. It turned out to be the small wooden desk just outside the old general merchandise type store, a block up from the train station. The elderly fat guy understood “Khao Sok” but was adamant there was no 7:50 bus. He took me over to the side of the building where the two-story high timetable was painted in faded colors. Certainly saved printing costs in my estimation. He was right! No 7:50 but we could take the local at 7:10 a.m.
The “locals” are 1950s style, curved-front buses that possibly were used for psychedelic road trips for a rock band. Very glittery, big orange stripes painted the full length of the ceiling, huge speakers every 6 feet or so in the overheads, school bus type seats with the requisite splitting, a large trumpeter exhaust system and vendors who cruised the aisle peddling spicy hot chicken just prior to departure.
Claudia was very sure Nid had said a 7:50 departure so our faith was slightly shaken as 7:50 a.m. wasn’t even on the wall. But lo and behold, for us travelers on the 7:10, 7:15 went by and no go, then 7:30, 7:45, 7:50 and then around 7:58 our driver got up from the bench where he was eating spicy hot chicken and off we went. Obviously we had made the 7:50 bus.
“Went” may be a deceptive term as we stopped and gained/lost passengers anywhere along the route. All a passenger had to do was make their way to the front of the bus, and tell the driver which bush they wanted to de-bus and off to the side we’d pull. They very quickly got off and in some cases during a rolling stop, jumped, giving a yell that they were clear, and off we’d go, thundering down the road. The horn was in very frequent use, one low toned blast to warn people within a mile or so that we were coming and a higher, more strident note to voice our drivers displeasure of other people’s walking, driving, living, whatever. Claudia and Jake scoped out the mileage markers and the tension increased as we cracked the 100 and 105 marks. But as advertised at the 109 mark, our chariot pulled over and out we went.
Nid was good to her word and was waiting patiently with a crayoned sign for “Claudia and family”. Art’s River View Jungle place turned out to be very cool. Built on stilts just above a small river, it faces basically a 500-600 foot cliff just across the river. Each afternoon the local band of monkeys leap and frolic down the vines and trees and all the dummy tourists, including us, throw bananas at them across the river. They sit over on the other side, probably taking bets on which rag-arms can in fact get it across the water. No work. Just sit there and look cute and you’ll get dinner tossed in.
Jake and I had electricity in our treehouse. Claudia and Jessie…nada. They had to negotiate a 20 foot suspension bridge, then up some stairs to reach their eyrie. No light, just a candle and hurricane lamp if one remembered to bring it from the main area. Showers were cold water only. Let’s see…stand in the rain ï¿½ stand in the shower, no difference except the rain is warmer.
Next morning we were off for the first elephant trek of the trip. The ride was about an hour and one half into the jungle to a fresh water waterfall and swimming hole. The elephants were equipped with a small 2-person, steel framed seat strapped on the back of Dumbo and family. The ride is sort of a swaying, rolling motion punctuated by a noticeable jolt as the pachyderm crunches its way downhill or through the brush. It’s definitely a different way to get around. Jessie earned top honors for the first leech bite. Final leech score: Jessie ï¿½ 2, Jake ï¿½ 1 and the wise, make that lucky, elders remarkably zero.
The following day found us in a 2-hour drive to Chico Lan Lake. This is one of the biggest lakes in Southern Thailand and is a truly amazing place. It is man-made and actually provides hydroelectric power to Singapore and Malaysia of all places. The lake is ringed and surrounded by these 400-1,000 ft limestone monoliths; basically vertical mountains/spires covered in vines and trees but breath-takingly straight up. The horizon looks like something out of The Lord of the Rings. A jagged skyline of misty pinnacles jutting up everywhere.
Rural taxis are pickups; open sided but with a canvas roof stretched over the bed of the pickup. There are “sort-of” padded benches along each side of the bed ï¿½ Eight people, 4 on a side is a good number for a full taxi. We saw several loaded with 12-14 people and animals, rear bumper pretty much dragging on the ground. With the canopy, you don’t get to see much other than the other persons knees and noses. I luckily had Claudia and Jessie across from me.
At the lake we got our chance at a Ferrari boat. It really is like sitting in front of a dragster. Thundering engine, spray and rain flying up over the front of the bow made it pretty exhilarating. We reached a floating bamboo hut village where we embarked on a three hour-trek through the jungle. We had to wade, thigh deep, through rain-swollen creeks that gave me pause for thought. Like what in the hell are we doing? But no problems. Jessie did score her second leech; this time on her collarbone. Pretty skuzzy looking. It was a total downpour the entire time we were hiking and while we were in the boats. Early on we gave up thinking “dry”. After our 2 and half days in Khao Sok, I had one set of underwear and one pair of socks that weren’t wet. Everything else was soaked or damp.
One of the local bird species was a long tailed oriole of sorts known as “Chu-ma” in Thai. They’re slightly bigger than a sparrow with a black back, white under feathers and a bright red-orange breast. They have the most remarkable song; incredibly clear and musical. At night we had a cancophony of sounds; frogs, bats, crickets, monkeys and hornbills. All in all an amazing natural sound system.
Nid drove us to see a friend of hers who had raised a hornbill from the egg. “Billy” was free to fly anywhere but continued to hang around the house. Free food and no worries…why not? Jessie and I took turns having Billy sit on our arms. Billy left Jessie a couple of good scratches on her arm and did his best to leave a deposit on my leg and shoe. The fact that he is still happily sitting on his perch and enjoying life is testament to his inaccuracy. Nid also invited us to her house for each of the World Cup semi-final games. The Werlins and four generations of Thais all engrossed with the tube.
After a repeat performance on the magical local bus and two flights, we made it to Chang-mai, way up in Northern Thailand.