Bangkok, Thailand (Princess) & Chitwan, Nepal
Updated: Mar 5
Bangkok, Thailand & Chitwan, Nepal
From my Journal March 21, 2009
At the fancy new airport in Bangkok, I had rearranged my luggage in various bags so I could leave the big suitcase at the airport and take the smaller one with me downtown. Well, conveniently I put my backpack into the carryon suitcase and proceeded to snap the lock shut. When I arrived at the hotel, I realized the keys to the lock were in the backpack - now locked inside the suitcase. !! A recent video a friend sent, showing how to break into a suitcase, was just the information I needed!
Basically it said to slip a pen in to separate the zipper, break the zipper basically, so I could reach in and find my keys. Then I could zip it back up by moving the zippers with lock attached, back and forth. Once I had the key, I could unlock it as normal.
Trying to cut the lock would have been a major headache. Amazingly, I managed to lock the keys inside the suitcase AGAIN this morning. But no problem, I broke into it, got the keys out and zipped it back up. Now I have the keys in my money belt so I am less likely to do that again. But since I have done it twice, I was very glad to know what to do! Good travel information! (Handy tip for travelers: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FAfaLJqAwGU.)
I had an eventful day today, first coffee at Starbucks on Khao San Road. Then I took a cab to the enormous 'weekend market' that sees roughly 200,000 visitors each weekend (according to the guide book). There are over fifteen-thousand stalls if you can imagine what that looks like. It is gargantuan, an easy place to get very lost. It was a sweaty, hot day, hard to keep cool. A quiet chaos filled the air under tarps and makeshift roofs as I roamed the corridors there. Other shoppers, shop keepers, maintenance workers hardly noticed me as I took it all in. I wandered concentric circles, end to end, through the furniture section, the pet department, home goods, fish market, clothing - whatever anyone would ever need or want could be found there. (Chatuchak Weekend Market: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chatuchak_Weekend_Market)
After poking around, looking for things to buy to sell in the Bazaar in my garage back home, I took the air conditioned Sky Train to Siam Square, a very modern shopping area with immense malls, lined side by side in tall, glass buildings. A quick ride, the elevated train tracks hovered over busy 10-lane boulevards. It was a typical busy, hot, sunny afternoon in Bangkok.
At the malls, I soon discovered I could walk several blocks along the second floor in an air conditioned hallway. Exiting one building, I would cross over a windowed walkway above many cars and soon be inside the next building. Like a hamster in her Habitrail, I was happy to avoid the sweltering heat and car exhaust below.
The traffic was at a stand still most of the time, so getting across the streets was more difficult at ground level. When traffic was moving - it was swift and on the wrong side of the street! Everyone tried to make up for lost time stuck in jams. Everyone was either stopped or in a rush! Street navigation was dangerous.
Up and away from the reality on the ground, among all those mall shoppers, I mostly noticed the young teens, decorated in all the latest trends, colors and sparkling garb, sporting attention-getting shoes, printed stockings, hair spiked tall, oversized collars, gold chains. They were laughing, giggling loudly in groups and not really shopping.
Near where I had gotten off the train is "Jim Thompson's House” (https://www.jimthompsonhouse.com). I had remembered reading about it the last time I was in Bangkok and wanted to check it out. After enjoying my indoor walk along the second floor through many buildings I headed to the museum.
I was just in time for the last tour in English at 5 o’clock. Being almost like a treehouse, with steps leading half a flight up to the living room, Jim Thompson’s house was exotic. We visitors had to take off our shoes before going upstairs.
Open to visitors, the house is in the busy city of Bangkok. It’s a complex of traditional old teak wood, Thai homes Jim Thompson collected from villages around the country, all on stilts, above cute, lovely tropical gardens. Back in his day, Thompson collected East Asian art, most of which is now in the National Museum, but some is still at the house. Two elaborately carved, antique, Chinese card tables, side by side, served as the dinning room table.
Jim Thompson (1906-1967) was an American soldier in the army who during World War II. He ended up in Bangkok on a military mission. He became so interested in the place, he later moved there. He collected art from the region and made it big in the Thai Silk industry. Hiring local weavers, he started the Thai Silk Company in 1951 and began exporting Thai silk around the world. The 1956 movie, "The King and I”, featured Jim Thompson’s silk. After that hit the theaters, everyone, everywhere wanted his silk — he had struck gold.
While my tour was in the guest room heading into Jim Thompson's room, our tour guide said we had to wait. The tour ahead of us was in the next room. Our guide said "The Princess" was with that group. I thought she was referring to her colleague as a princess, as an intolerant tour guide who didn’t want other groups near hers and couldn’t be disturbed.
We instead went to a different room. Our guide again told us we had to wait. It took me some time to figure it out. Actually, in the next room was the REAL Princess of Thailand. She was also on a tour of the historic house! The daughter of the King of Thailand was an arm’s length away! (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sirivannavari)
She was right behind us. We passed her a few times. Our tour guide whispered in English, "She's the one in the black T-shirt." Pretty cool! She may have been in her 20s, hanging out with 2 or 3 other friends her age.
It turned out, very coincidentally, that that day happened to be Jim Thompson's birthday. He would have been 103 that day. However, he disappeared mysteriously in 1967 at age 61 while on a trip in Malaysia. Maybe foul play? Hundreds of men in search crews never found his body. There were flowers spread over a table in his bedroom along with several old photos of him.
At the end of the tour, I asked the other people in my English speaking tour group which shoes they thought belonged to the princesses? Several shoes were scrambled as we had left them. Maybe I could slip the Princess’ shoes on or into my bag! What if I took them and wore them out through the town!?
One guy said, “Those must be her shoes”. He pointed to a woman police guard wearing a uniform who had been holding a pair of royal sandals. I had noticed her respectfully carrying those shoes in both arms upstairs, but it didn’t cross my mind why… Oh yes. Those must belong to the princess!! Had they left them with the other shoes, someone might have taken them!
I watched as the woman in uniform put the sandals at the bottom of the stairs just as the princess began stepping down from the top. The princess came right in front of me, slipping (not too gracefully) into her tiny, cumbersome sandals, while the uniformed woman stooped low to the ground to buckle them on.
I spoke the Thai version of Namaste - "Swadeeka" - with hands as if praying - and bowed respectfully toward the royal woman as she passed. She hardly nodded, deciding not to notice me.
It was clear the princess was a bit aloof...but soon I could see why!! Not only did she have a personal servant to buckle her sandals for her, there was a glowing array of shiny cars and guards in extravagant, gold trimmed uniforms, saluting her as she stepped outside. Where had they all come from?! I wondered. She must have arrived after I got there.
The tour guides, almost choreographed, began lining up ready to thank her individually for her visit like a team shaking hands with their opponent after a game. It was a bit crazy to be there just then.
I saw the princess go into the gift shop. With my shoes on - I followed. In the shop I found her laughing with her friends over some item they had picked up on a shelf. I pretended not to be watching from a distant corner behind a display of silk scarves. My goodness, those scarves were quite beautiful.
After a while I waited for her outside, and when she was about to come out all the guards and cars revved up, motors and lights on, saluting, gold tassels dripping from uniforms — but then they must have gotten word that the Princess was going upstairs. So the motors turned off. All was quiet again.
The princess went up a wooden staircase on the outside of the building. Maybe there was a terrace or a private room up there where she and her friends could have a drink and a snack.
At that point I decided to leave. It was getting late and I had a bit of a walk to get back to my hotel.
Out on what had been a very quiet and totally empty alley when I arrived, lined on both sides by ugly cinder block walls -- there were now hoards of people standing at attention! The people had come out of the woodwork, out of apartments, out of the backs of their shops. They waited. They hoped to get a glimpse of the princess.
Where had they all come from?! As if eagerly waiting for an annual parade, it was obvious they knew the princess was nearby. She and her escorts would be driving along in her black limo soon. I wished I had a megaphone to inform them it would be at least another half hour, since she had gone up stairs for something...but instead I had to walk alone in the street, slightly feeling like they had all come out for me!
A few days later in an E-mail to a friend:
March 27, 2009
Sauraha, Nepal, near Chitwan National Park in the southern jungles of Nepal
I am here in the warm south of Nepal among many elephants. On occasion they pass by the open door of this internet cafe - like big slow moving cars going by. I find I look up each time as the shadows are unfamiliar, not usual outdoor activity. The internet is slow here, and I worry about the power going out once I've written pages and pages of eloquent prose, then poof, it's possible — all my words evaporate.
My last hour was spent watching the elephants take a bath in the nearby Rapti River, just outside the cute hotel I found near the end of the dirt road on the edge of the village. There are a few adorable guesthouses along the river.
The elephants take baths everyday at the lunch hour. I did not participate but I eagerly watched as other tourists did. One can sit on the elephant's back as the elephant sprays you with Rapti water collected in their trunks. An elephant amusement park! The large animals walk in the water and will roll over and you fall right off, and it's good fun. Just last night I saw a crocodile!! swimming in the river nearby. No one got eaten today that I noticed, but crocodiles do swim there! And I’m sure there are leaches and other undesirables lurking near…
Last night as the sun was setting, I sat overlooking the river and soon someone pointed out the crocodile’s head floating along. Quickly everyone was on their feet watching him, trying to get a good look. All you could see was a little bump for his nose and another little bump for his eyes skimming along the surface. He was moving against the current - probably looking for dinner. Sometimes his tail swished stirring the dark water behind him. They are a special type of crocodile that live here with a very thin long nose and mouth "crammed with ill-fitting teeth" (according to the guide book) and grow to about 5-6 feet long as adults. I forget the specific name - something like Guirda.. (Gharial crocodiles - I was close.)
There are a bunch of exotic animals in these parts like Sloth Bears, for example, whose "gallbladder" is prized for healing in places like China. And the Gangetic River Dolphin also lives here, one of two kinds of freshwater dolphins. The other lives in the Amazon. Also the Marsh Muggers (where the word "mugger" came from when the British first met this creature). These are a distant relative of the Australian saltwater crocodile that are known to drag unsuspecting villagers into the river for dinner.
All these animals are so very valuable on the black market. Protecting a 7 ton elephant costs tons of money, food, water, energy - while the poachers can get so much $$$ for one tusk. They sometimes leave the animal without killing it, if they can, because then for some reason it is harder to find out who did it..maybe the animal moves from the scene of the crime. Awful! Really awful!!
I read about the "Fishing Cat" that lives here. They are in the big-cat family - but this one actually has webbed feet for swimming, and catching fish in the rivers. There are about 120 Bengal Tigers in the park - Chitwan National Park - the ancestral hunting grounds of the King. Tigers are valuable too and the one-horn Asian rhino's horn and the nose of this crocodile..are worth much $$$ as well!
Too many problems in the world, and I seem to be focusing on all of them. Like the problem of the big corporations and big political powers that be - moving into tiny Nepal and damming up these raging Himalayan rivers for hydropower - thus killing too much wildlife below! Like in these parts where the rivers used to run naturally. The big corporations are shipping electricity out to bigger, richer countries like India..leaving Nepal without enough for themselves.
There is a 16 hour!! power outage every day all over the country - not just in Kathmandu. Every single day!! They call it 'load shedding'. It seems the city-people use more electricity than the grid system can provide so it shuts off quite regularly. The people are used to it. Likely the power will go out now! and my words will vanish. Just like that!
It is not too hot here - much less humid than in Thailand. It's sort of nice actually. But there aren't many tourists so being alone I feel somewhat on my own which is OK, but usually when I travel alone I meet lots of like-minded travelers. The few people I've met seem more like that princess in Thailand - a little aloof and not so interested in chatting. At least I found a good hotel and found out about all the activities so when I return with trekkers - in a few weeks - it will be easy.
Only problem now is that there has been a strike here, political instability - people demanding things from the government that the government cannot provide!! In protest the locals stop everything - everything is closed, traffic doesn't move, they burn tires in the streets and in the mountain highways, disrupting traffic. There is a 10-day break going on now so the students can finish their exams or something like that...so I got lucky with my timing. It is probable the strike will start up again in a few days. If there are strikes and protests going on here after our Himalayan trek to Everest base camp, we should maybe not visit these parts. We shall see.
I was considering bussing it around to various towns in this area (southern Nepal), like Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha. However, I am unfortunately changing my plan because I could easily be stuck in a bus on a highway somewhere like nowhere since these strikes are random and unpredictable. I don't want to be stuck here when my trekkers arrive in Kathmandu!! That would be bad.
Yesterday I took a horse and cart through Tharu (local peoples) villages and rice paddies. It was like a trip through the pages of a National Geographic Magazine - mud and thatched huts...women and children working in the fields, chickens and ducks crossing dirt roads, rather idillic, puppies following small children playing, old men looking like walking bushes, carrying loads of leaves on their backs, collected from the community jungle for food for their water buffaloes.
The horse and cart took me to the Elephant Breeding Center (3km from town) where I saw the baby elephants who are sooo absolutely cute!! One mama elephant recently had twins, which I learned is very very rare in the elephant world. They were so sweet, little miniature versions of their monstrous mother. They stood about up to my hip with a baby trunk and all. Crazy adorable.!
The locals are surprised to hear me speak Nepali. I have had offers for tea and dinner and visiting people's homes and relatives. Mostly I deal with men around here. The women are at home with babies or in the fields. The horse and cart driver wondered if I were married so I said I was. :)
I wish you were here so we could go have lunch at one of these cute restaurants overlooking the river. If I don't go for an elephant ride in search of rhino this afternoon, I'll sit by the water and read my book. I look forward to sleeping like a princess under a mosquito net tonight with the sounds of jungle insects in stereo - hopefully - outside the screened windows and not inside. Then the birds will likely organize another symphony in the earliest hours of the morning, announcing to the world - joy, the sun and a new day.
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"Travel is filled with the promise of fulfillment but only for those willing to gamble that a journey, like a kiss, can have the power of magic." -- King Louis II of Bavaria built the Neuschwanstein Castle in the nineteenth century, a fairy-tale castle on a peak which has often been compared to Sleeping Beauty's palace.