Koh Samui, Thailand and one last hurrah in Bangkok
29.12.2012 - 01.01.2013
As you have probably noticed throughout the course of this blog, my vacations are typically very fast-paced. The excursions can be fun, but they can be even more exhausting than my schedule back home. After 15 days of early morning, day-long excursions, I was ready to relax for a few days. The last stop on my trek was the island of Koh Samui off of the Eastern coast of Thailand. My plan was to sleep late, lay on the beach, wade in the clear and tropical water and reflect on my journey. I booked a nice resort which afforded me with my own space, and as I found out, even my own pool!
My beach abode
The weather was extremely windy the first full day I was there, and there weren't many people in beach attire. I walked around the resort and the beaches, taking pictures of odd things here and there and watching the kite surfers whimsically sail by. Although I wasn't especially enthused about hanging out on the beach with the overcast and windy weather, my beach cottage provided a nice sanctuary for reading my books. I immersed myself in Nate Silver's "The Signal and the Noise," pondering my application of Bayesian statistics and savoring the wonderful commentary on observation bias. In between reads, I watched English Premier League and Al Jazeera, ate a ton of Thai food and talked with Danielle.
Not exactly beach weather
The gathering storm
A beautiful seashell
A kite surfer in the distance
Relaxing with my book
The second day was more of the same, this time with heavy periodic thunderstorms. I fell asleep about three hours before the New Year's countdown and woke up to the sound of several explosions being set off fairly close to my once-peaceful bungalow as the locals brought in the new year.
The resort was nice, but it was not for me. I missed the camaraderie of hostels and their proximity to numerous things within town. The food was nice, but it couldn't be the numerous street stalls selling pork on a stick that were practically ubiquitous in other locales. I figured out that I really did prefer hostels to resorts, adrenaline adventures to poolside relaxation and street food to five star restaurants. The two days of relaxation was definitely nice and gave me an opportunity to recharge, but I was ready to do something exciting again.
Due to numerous travel issues that I will not cover in this blog (my loved ones have already heard an earful), I ended up leaving Koh Samui at 8 AM on January 1st to arrive in Bangkok at 9:15 AM. The only problem was that my flight back to the United States didn't take off until 2:20....AM. That left me with about a 17 hour layover, and I decided I would venture into Bangkok one more time to explore the sights that I had not gotten to see during my first tour.
Bangkok is actually a shortened version of the city's name. The full name is 167 characters, achieving the distinction of being the longest name in the world for any country's capital city. The full name loosely translates to "The City of Angels." As many of you know, Los Angeles shares this same meaning; probably another reason why I felt such a great affinity for the city. After one rail link from the airport, and two sky train lines within the city, I arrived at the home of the legendary Jim Thompson.
Jim Thompson was born in Delaware in 1906 and following his completion of secondary school, enrolled at Princeton University to become an architect. He worked as an architect for many years and volunteered for the Army when World War II broke out. Towards the end of the war, he was sent to Thailand and fell in love with the culture and people. In addition to his architectural prowess, Mr. Thompson had a shrewd business sense. He saw a few of the locals spinning silk and inquired about the process and the strange material they were weaving.
A fountain on the grounds
A beautiful visitor
He brought samples of the fabric back to New York to show respected members of the fashion industry, and subsequently took these samples to Milan and Paris where they were taken up almost immediately by various designers. His products appeared in the movie "The King and I" shortly thereafter, and this virtually catapulted the international market for the commodity which still flourishes today. After renting a house for a few years in Bangkok, he decided to build a home in what is now the Sukhimvit district of Bangkok. He built the structure out of numerous old building panels that he had imported from the ancient capital of Ayutthaya. He had nine separate buildings in all to house his personal belongings as well as his vast collection of Burmese, Khmer, Chinese and Thai artifacts and tapestries that he had amassed during his time in the region.
An ancient porcelain stool used in China; In the winter time, hot coals would be placed inside and the heat would radiate through the vents to warm the posterior
Although his house was very much in classical Ayutthaya style, Mr. Thompson still preferred numerous Western amenities. For instance, many Asian cultures typically eat meal sitting on the ground, but he wanted his Western guests to feel comfortable. Therefore, if one looks closely, his dining table is actually two mahjong tables that have been pushed together since the European tables were few and far between. Mr. Thompson also used his creativity to make lamps that would suit him. He took ancient Burmese drums, turned them over, and then used the flat parts of the drums as bases for various lamps throughout the house. And of course no 20th century mansion would be complete without at least one chandelier. Pictures were prohibited insides the house itself, but I managed to take a shot of his living room which was open to the outside. You can faintly see one of the chandeliers to the left as well as one of the specialty lamps on the right hand side of the second picture below.
A view from the outside
The open living room
The former garage
The house was exquisite, but it left my feet tired and my belly ravenous. On the recommendation of a friend, I headed over to the "Cabages and Condoms" restaurant. The founder of the restaurant is an effervescent man by the name of Mechai Viravaidya. In the 1960s, he realized that few Thais actually went to the doctor for contraception, but all of them went to vegetable stands to buy groceries. He knew that there was a considerable amount of stigma attached to contraception in Thai culture, so he literally decided to open a stand that sold vegetables and condoms side by side. Subsequent and innovative efforts on implemented on a massive scale have allowed him and his organization to be extremely effective at lowering the population growth rate from 3.2% in the early 1970s to 1.4% in the early 1990s. As of the writing of a 1994 article, 95% of Thais agree with birth control and 73% practice it.
...And the establishment's catchy slogan
His tiny vegetables stand has grown into a 300 seat restaurant in downtown Bangkok where instead of a post-meal mint, a condom is delivered with the bill. His awards and articles detailing his philanthropy fill the restaurant, along with a few quirky statues and historical "reproductions." I enjoyed a fabulous duck dish with tamarind sauce over steamed rice and felt inspired reading all of his articles after my meal (I literally read every single one). All of the proceeds from the restaurant go to the non-profit Population and Community Development Association which he helped found. The only sad part was that I could not share the experience with my wonderful advisers, Drs. Don Morisky, Paula Tavrow, Catherine Sugar and Marjan Javanbakht or any of my other sexual health allies of which there are thankfully so many to name. I walked away inspired and reinvigorated to return to the field and the work that I absolutely cherish.
A wonderful duck in tamarind sauce
The man himself
History with a twist
Yep, that's Mona Lisa with a condom on her hand
Only the coolest superhero ever
Seasonally dressed for the occasion
A question for Tiger
My after lunch gift...
...And an explanation of said gift
The organization that the proceeds support located next to the restaurant
My last stop was the Paragon shopping complex in the middle of Bangkok. As the name implies, this shopping mall was top shelf. I don't love to shop, but I was awe struck by the sheer size and modern qualities of the mall. The Mall of America was impressive, but this place was even more stunning. I went up a seemingly endless number of escalators gawking at the sheer selection offered. Just to provide an example, there was a whole FLOOR that was just cosmetics. It also had just about every type of restaurant and food imaginable. When I ascended to a floor that was so high it seemingly required an oxygen tank, I decided to head over to the movie complex to see if the reviews stacked up to the hype.
The Siam Paragon Mall
Hello darkness, my old friend
Cosmetics as far as the eye can see
I honestly never go to movies in foreign countries. I think the last movie I saw in a foreign country was a subtitled version of "The Sandlot" in Cuernavaca, Mexico circa 1994. When I go to a foreign country, I like to see what's unique to their culture and clime. After all, I LIVE in the city that produces the most movies in the world and is quite famous for its awe-inspiring cinneplexes. However, many travelers that I had encountered gave rave reviews to this theater stating that it provided immense luxury at such a bargain cost. My feet were tired from walking throughout the city and this seemed like a relaxing end to the day. The movie lobby demonstrated much of the opulence of the rest of the mall, and it was readily comparable to the amazing cinemas like the Century City Screens (near Beverly Hills, California), City Walk (adjacent to Universal Studios) or Rave (a movie theater that contains the most impressive IMAX screen in Southern California). These L.A. movie going experiences are the epitome of luxury, and you often pay a cool $15 for the privilege. In contrast, the Thai version of said experience cost me a mere $7.
Almost looks like it's from the future
Yep, that says "Privilege Chair"
The theater itself was not that stunning on the inside, but the chair was like something Captain Piccard would bark orders from on the Starship Enterprise. I felt simultaneously comfortable and master of my domain. As the movie engaged (sorry, couldn't resist), there were some striking differences. There were literally 25 minutes of previews and advertisements interspersed with one another. I was practically asleep by the time the movie started. Then a thunderous noise bellowed over the loud speaker and everyone stood in unison. I quickly figured out they were playing the Thai national anthem and with quite a bit of video propaganda. The whole song was in Thai with no English subtitles, aside from the very end. The last set of frames contained a caption that said, "The King is great. Long live the King." I'll let you digest that one.
When the movie was over, the clock had stuck 8 PM and I decided it was time for me to get back to the airport to wait out the rest of my layover and end the day on a high note. I solemnly boarded the Sky Train and then transferred to the airport rail link with a bitter sweet taste in my mouth. In just 19 days, I had experienced a significant amount of Thai and Cambodia history, culture and the natural wonders they had to offer. Although Bangkok is often times overcrowded and maddening to many travelers, I came from a big city where I knew that you needed to look deeper than the surface to find the real beauty in the locale. The city had given me Muay Thai fights, ladyboy extravaganzas, delicious streetfood and unforgettable temples. It was my favorite stop on my trip, and fitting that it would be at the introduction and conclusion of my trip. Asia's City of Angels, and her surrounding kingdom, had captured my heart, but it was time to finally return to my own.
Five continents down, just two more to go