I think it important to make one thing clear at the start of this chapter: I do
not like rats. I do not like them in any way, and I do not like anything to do with
rats. I dislike them so much I have removed India from my “Places to Go” list
because a friend told me there were rats on the trains in that country. Now we can
Thailand was a bonus on my assignment to write a couple of books for
International Development Enterprises. I was commissioned to write a book on
their work in Nepal and then move on to Myanmar (Burma) to do the same. At the
time it was not possible to obtain a visa to visit Burma from Canada, so I would go
to Thailand and get my visa there. It sounded simple enough and I wondered why
my employer suggested three days for the process. In my mind it would be a
simple matter and could be achieved in a day, I had so much to learn.
I landed in Bangkok and made my way to the hotel, which IDE had
reserved and was a short walk to the Myanmar Embassy. As I was checking in, the
lady at the front desk asked if I had been to the Night Market. I told her I had not
and was open to any other suggestions she might have. The night market was a
must, she said, so I stored my gear in my room and headed out to visit the market.
It was dusk as I made my way along what could best be described as a
dimly lit sidewalk. I saw a rat scurry from a building and across the walk into a
large bag of garbage that had been deposited in the street. I summoned all the
mental power I could, convinced myself I did not really see that and continued
walking. I did not take note (because I did not really see that) whether it was the
next block or a block-and-a-half when I saw a rat run from a bag of garbage in the
street to a building on the opposite side of the sidewalk.
My sojourn to the night market was over; I turned around and headed back
to my hotel where the same lady was still at the desk.
“Did you see the night market?”
“Yes, I am done for the night.”
“You were not gone very long, you could not have seen much of the
“I saw all I can handle for tonight, Good night.” I headed up to my room, I
am not sure if I slept with the light on, I might have.
It was a new day, and after a cup of coffee in the lobby I headed to the
Embassy to get the visa for my trip to Myanmar and then I would need to book the
air flight for tomorrow. I got to the door and was surprised that I was number five
in the line-up, by now confident I would get done by noon. We had an hour or so
to wait till the office opened and I began to chat with two young ladies ahead of
me. They were Americans teaching school in Burma. They had to leave the
country for 24 hours every 90 days and get a new visa issued; they had done this
dance before, they said, and their demeanor told me to go easy on the confidence.
Finally the door opened, we moved inside where a small wicket opened as
we kept our place in line. The clerk dealt with the first three applicants in a few
minutes, then closed the wicket—I assumed for an early lunch break—but No, that
was the day, come back tomorrow! One of the teachers was heading back to
Burma; the other would have to appear tomorrow morning. I decided then I would
be the first person in line when that door opened the next day and I was. A few
hours on the doorstep was better than seeing the wicket close.
The remaining teacher and I would have to appear the next day and hoped
to get our paper work done, but we agreed to meet in the evening and attend the
martial arts match advertised on a poster outside the embassy.
I was disappointed at the closing of the gate for my entry to Myanmar but
had to come to grips with the fact the world does not care about my schedule.
Things are done differently in other parts of the world—I would best accept that
and move on. I set out to experience the market place and some street food. I have
always been an advocate of sampling the wares of street vendors and only a few
times have I been disappointed. When you consider the number of meals I have
bought on sidewalks the odds are well in my favour.
As I wound my way down the narrow streets the vendors offered an array
of foods, most on wooden skewers and served on Styrofoam plates. Prices were
extremely reasonable. I tried several items from carts that resembled hot dog carts
in North America but offered a variety of things I did not recognize. I spoke no
Thai, and English was not the language of commerce for most of these vendors; it
was a simple matter of pointing at something and indicating the number I wanted
with the appropriate number of fingers (the thumb does not count) and then trying
not to spill too much food on my shirt.
The meat consisted of small pieces of anything. I could not recognize the
texture and decided I might be better not to know. Most things were covered in a
sauce that had at least a significant amount of red food colouring and a bit of an
edge to it. It was not jalapeno or that kind of heat, rather something else with more
than a bit of spice.
To my surprise several vendors offered me a seat at the tables they had
placed on the sidewalk or in the street. They were the plastic table and chairs we
would have thought of as kids’ sets. Here they were intended to hold their adult
patrons and they did, the chairs worked fine, but it was still best to hold the plate
in your hands to catch any food that dropped while in the process of conveying it
to your mouth.
I wandered the streets in the market and found several dining experiences.
Most of the items were deep-fried but all extremely fresh and burn-your-mouth-
hot when served. As I navigated the market, the day took a sharp upturn.
The shops offered a wide selection of low priced items and in most things,
the quality reflected the price. I am sure there were high-end stores but this was
obviously where the locals shopped. The displays of produce were not as carefully
created as I had seen in other countries; it seemed the emphasis here was on
volume and on having the produce move home with the consumer.
The ubiquitous Golden Arches appeared and even the giant fibreglass
Ronald McDonald was in the Namaste position with his hands in the Anjali
Mudra. I chose not to have a meal with the big redhead and moved on.
As I headed back to my hotel, hunger in check and some exploring done, I
noticed a foot massage studio. My aching dogs were ready for a new experience
and I asked about the prices—the equivalent of two dollars. It was not a difficult
decision and in no time, plunked down on the recliner, I had my feet soaking in a
mini whirlpool tub. An attendant appeared, put her stool down and began to
massage my feet and calves. I leaned back and enjoying 20 minutes of ecstasy, I
was just about to doze off when she informed me we were done. I had another
complete treatment and enjoyed it just as much. Back to reality and my hotel on
my jelly-like legs.
I had been to a few wrestling matches but Muay Thai was a new
experience. I was drawn to it as a cultural event, not to see two human beings beat
the tar out of each other in the name of sport.
My teacher friend had not been to a match either and we may have been the
only two newbies in the crowd. Admission was about three dollars for standing
room behind the wire cage up high, and about five for the good seats down on the
floor. For an extra buck you got privileges to go anywhere—including the dressing
rooms of the fighters. There was not a bit of hesitation, my friend and I were in for
the best and soon we were seated close enough to the ring to catch some moisture
from the combatants; I could not identify it as perspiration or saliva (sweat or spit)
but it was flying.
Just like these events in any of the countries I have been to, after any of the
matches, there seemed to be a lot of money changing hands and the service of
malted beverages was everywhere. I did not engage in any of the betting, just
because it did not look like a highly controlled process, and I doubted I would
collect if my man won.
Muay Thai is called the fighting of eight limbs because it includes feet,
hands, knees and elbows, so suffice it to say it was fast pace. I will leave the visit
to the dressing room to your imagination, and you are probably right.
Another cultural experience in the books . . .
The next morning I was at the door of the embassy a couple of hours before
opening and I was indeed the first client at the wicket, but I made the mistake of
saying I was a journalist—not a good thing when applying for a visit to a
communist country. I explained that I had misunderstood the question. I was in
fact a retired journalist going to do some volunteer work. I was very happy to hear
the stamp on my visa and have it inserted into the passport. Paper work in order, I
found the airline did not require reservations—it was a matter of ‘show up and get
on the plane’.
That gave me another day to explore the sights of Bangkok. Walking
through the city I was amazed at the number of shrines and the fresh flowers or
food placed at the shrine every morning. While over 90% of the country is
declared Buddhist, the shrines are not dedicated to Buddha, but to the spirits of the
land. When someone buys a parcel of land for a business or home, now that the
land will be used for other purposes they build a shrine for the spirits of that land
to live in. While the concept seemed a bit strange in a land that is so strongly
Buddhist, the two practices have become intertwined—think Christmas trees and
Easter eggs in the Christian faith.
“The river is life”; this truth has been verified in all the places I have
visited. In Bangkok I found a cruise that would take me along the Chao Phraya
River, out into the country to the National Museum of Royal Barges. Located not
far from Phra Pin Klao Bridge, the museum had begun life as a dry dock for
barges and warships under the care of the Royal Household and the Royal Thai
Navy. It was extensively damaged, by bombing during WW2; in 1949 the
Department of Fine Arts restored the museum. Not only impressive now in its
magnificent structures, it told an interesting story of life along the river and how
water facilitated the movement of goods.
It was time to head to Burma.