Our seedy little hotel has an interesting feature, a slot next to the door where you insert a plastic card to turn on the electricity. When you leave the room, since the card is attached to the room key, you’re forced to take it out of the slot, which turns off the electricity. It’s a pretty nifty way for the hotel to save money. It’s obvious they’ve seen us coming, wasteful American tourists with our energy-guzzling habits like leaving the AC on all day so the room will be cool when we return. There will be none of that here!
I’m in the hallway outside my room, waiting for the more slothful members of our party to make their appearance. It’s actually more like a large landing, with heavy wooden chairs arranged around a coffee table. Several doors, adorned like mine with beautiful bare-breasted Thai maidens, open off this landing, and all of them have shoes, mostly sandals, arranged neatly outside them. People here take their shoes off before entering houses. Curiously, we have the same custom in Washington, though it’s a lot more complicated there, since it’s rarely warm enough to wear flip-flops as almost everyone here does. At home it requires tedious unlacing and unbuckling.
But I digress. My companions have finally emerged from their rooms, blinking like moles in the morning light, and we set out in search of breakfast, which we eat, naturally, al fresco, at a stand with plastic tables set up around it.
It’s almost lunchtime, and most of the tables are occupied by giggling schoolgirls dressed in little white blouses, knee-length plaid pleated skirts, ankle socks and black and white Oxfords. I figure there must be one giant school-uniform company, centrally located in Siberia maybe, that supplies schools all over the world. It’s the only reasonable explanation for why school uniforms are the same everywhere.
The food, a spicy soup, is delicious. We’re already sweating, since it’s about a hundred degrees, and the humidity feels like a hot wet blanket draped over us. The soup makes us sweat even more. Then my sister Linda’s flimsy chair buckles and she falls over backwards onto the cement, causing a minor sensation among the schoolgirls since she’s over six feet tall and blonde. She gamely picks herself up and dusts herself off, and we set off, full, hot and happy.
We take a boat ride down the broad, brown Chao Phraya river that curves lazily through central Bangkok.
A nice breeze affords some respite from the crushing heat. The city’s a mix of middle-class neighborhoods, crowded shantytowns, opulent, gilded temples that sparkle in the sunlight, and elegant high-rise hotels.
After a while we get off the boat and walk through a touristy area with lots of stands selling souvenirs. Linda, Ellie and I are itching to buy some of the beautiful fabrics and carved wood, but Nick shakes his head and tells us we’ll find these same things for half the price in Chiang Mai, the northern city he’s been living in for the past year and a half.
Now it’s mid-afternoon and we’re hot, sweaty and tired, but Ellie drives us on unmercifully in search of a huge golden Buddha she saw when she visited Bangkok the year before. Traffic, consisting of cars, tuk-tuks and more motorcycles than I’ve ever seen at one time before, swirls around us as we wander the sunstruck streets looking for the phantom Buddha.
We visit a couple of temple complexes, little oases of green and quiet surrounded by gilded Oriental structures.
Signs caution us not to touch the monks or be taken in by false tour guides. There are lily ponds patrolled by frighteningly large koi, and tiny, emaciated cats lounging everywhere. Nick tells us that people who want to divest themselves of their kitties (meanies!) drop them off at the temples. The poor little things look dazed. I hope they’re alert enough not to fall into the lily ponds, where they’d scarcely make a mouthful for one of those monster fish.
We finally convince Ellie to abandon the search for the big golden Buddha—we’ll buy a postcard instead. And now, one of the delights of Asia is beckoning to us: the legendary fish spa! Little Thai women industriously scrub our hot, aching feet and calves, and then we experience the bliss of lowering them into tanks of deliciously cool water with hundreds of tiny fish in it. The fish gather around and begin to nibble at our feet. It’s the strangest sensation, as if they had tiny teeth, but very pleasant.
I take a closer look at them, and realize they’re those tiny sucker fish that diligently work their way up and down the glass walls of aquariums eating the algae. Hmm. I’m thinking, I could buy a huge aquarium at home, stock it with these fish and stick my feet into it every night. . .
This only sets us back three dollars, so, feeling reckless, we follow it up with a wonderful hour-long massage for six dollars. Linda’s masseur goes all out. He stands on her rear end, kneading it with his feet, then yanks her arms behind her and shoves his feet into her back.
But, hey, it feels wonderful! We’re lying on mattresses in a cool, dim upper room. Our masseuses chatter back and forth in a soft sing-song that lulls me into a stupor. As I drift off I’m thinking, I could get used to this. . .