Daily Meander: Silom, Bangkok

I’m not a good blogger. I procrastinate. I figure I can always update later, which defeats the whole purpose of the chronological order of a blog. Lately though, I’ve been worrying about forgetting things that pictures can’t record. For example, how long was our bus ride from Kuala Lumpur to Had Yai? (9 hours, from 10am to 6pm, plus a one hour time difference we didn’t figure out until the next day.) how long was our bus ride from Had Yai to Krabi Town? (5 hours, from 1pm to 6pm, about.) i can definitely tell you though, that from Ao Nang to Surat Thani, with its waiting and transferring of busses and 2am snack breaks was 14 and a half hours long (from 4pm to 6:30am). I don’t think we slept more than 3 of those hours between the 2 of us. We unloaded onto a triangle of traffic and fought our way through perched taxi drivers.

I spend a month in the vicinity of Bangkok a couple of years ago as a student, but I can’t claim to know much of it. I was busy being a student. I did make daytrips to Jim Thompson’s House and Chinatown and Chatuchak, to Hua Hin and the Middle Eastern District and went on a night bike ride, but I never did get a sense of the city as a whole. And if I had ever known what a taxi cost, I didn’t know anymore.

In hindsight, saddled with baggage and not staying in the vicinity of Khao San Road, where we were dropped off, We should have just grabbed the first taxi and paid the tourist farang price. Instead, we fought our way out of the ring of taxi drivers, asked several taxi drivers on Khao San Road how much it would be to get to the. Myamnar Embassy, and were quoted 200-400 baht.

After walking south for awhile in righteous, touristy indignation, we found a taxi cab driver who was willing to take us on the meter (the green ones seem to be better). The end price? 100 baht. It’s probably best to always be on the meter, but if you do choose to negotiate with non-metered taxis in Bangkok, the following may help you out.

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Unfortunately, trekking to the Myanmar Visa Entrance with all our earthly possessions for the next few months (like real backpackers!), we found the following notice:

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I guess we should have checked Myanmar’s national holidays. At least we knew where the visa entrance was, and after breakfast and wifi at the fashionable, but pricy, hostel Saphai Pai and checking into and using more wifi at our own hostel, New Road Guest House, we went in search of some one to provide us with visa application forms, passport copies, and passport photos. Approaching from the north, we passed by at least three. The one we used though, was the one closest to the Myanmar Visa Entrance going north on Than Pon, on the right.

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It was the most low-key place, and didn’t seem to have a name, but it provided everything we needed, including printing our air itinerary just to be safe, had a handy sample visa application, took about 10 mintues, and cost 336 baht for 2 people. We were advised to go early to the Embassy tomorrow, as there would be a lot of people. This handy visa station doesn’t seem to have a name, but it’s near this laundry:

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Now, having been up for about 33 hours, we decided to try and stay awake until a reasonable time. We purposely wasted time taking pictures of flower markets and Hindu temples, and walked down a street to see a mosque, where we discovered a wet market that sold the same tasty, salt-encrusted grilled fish we had in Krabi Town one rainy night before.

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We also comparison shopped beer and yogurt between 7-11 and a grocery store.

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The grocery store didn’t seem to differ too much from my experience with US grocery stores, although I didn’t look at the produce. It might have been a higher end one. There was no price differentiation between the yogurt there and at 7-11, though the beer was cheaper by 3 baht. Unfortunately, while purchasing it, we ran into this problem:

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Mike was pretty upset at the inanity of the rule, but I wanted a pretzel and lemonade in a stand outside the grocery store, a stand which reminded me of the pretzel booth I used to work in during college, except there were 12 people behind the counter instead of 3. Also, the cashier had better English than the people running the exclusively farang bus we had taken to get to Bangkok. Anyway, by the time I was done with my buttered piece of carbohydrate, it was 5pm and he could go and buy his beer.

Now we’ve been up for 35 hours, and we agreed early on that we would not be held accountable for any incoherence during this time. Overall, I like what I’ve seen of the part of Bangkok we’re staying in. Silom is full of embassies. We came here for the Myanmar Embassy, and we navigated our way to our hostel by following signs to the French Embassy. Our neck of Silom is home to the Pakistani-Thai Friendship Association, and boasts quite a few Pakistani/Indian restaurants (in addition to the tourist staples of Italian/Thai). There are also a lot of jewelry stores, and wholesale semi-precious stone and silver stores.

I’ve read at least one derogatory comment about flying to Thailand to stay in a commercial area like Silom. Yes, it is a bit far from the city center, and the Thai National Museum, and the backpacker vibe of Khao San Road. But it’s 10 minutes to Chinatown, and 5 minutes to a Skytrain station, and it has its share of temples Hindu, Muslim, and Chinese.

As far as its reputation as being a commercial center, that’s definitely true. But just as I got over being stationed near Bukit Bintang in Kuala Lumpur due to its malls and shopping centers being great places to eat cheaply and watch locals and tourists shop, I hope others can get over Silom being a commercial center when they do thesame. You can also observe office workers on their way to work and from work, and schoolchildren with their matching uniforms and hairstyles buying snacks, hanging out, and generally being kids. Life seems more quotidian here.

But what do I know? I haven’t even been here 12 hours. There are plenty of hotels, hostels, bank ATMs, and a currency exchange or two, as well as at least one Starbucks. I’m not sure how to yet review the hostel I’m staying at, but it is cheap and has free working wifi. Hopefully I will update more later.

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Sri Weld Food Court: An Afternoon Eatery

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Mike and I came across Sri Weld Food Court coming back from the post office, and it became our go to lunch place. Of course, it is not immune to tourists, us included, and all of the benefits that brings (English menus and English speakers), but seemed to serve a lot of office workers on lunch break as well. We didn’t run into any rats or cockroaches at this place, just cats and kittens that will beg from you or paw at leftovers in the dirty dish bins.

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The court is only active from 11 to 5 pm, so its nicely shaded. The largest stall is for drinks, and you can get anything from pricy Western food to Taiwanese food to traditional Chinese-Malay food such as Hainnanese chicken, “pao” (baozhi) from a very clean hawker stall, and wonton mee.

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The place is famous for its nasi lemak and its soup beef koay teow, if you’re into that.

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Broadway Budget Motel: New and Shiny

After we had had enough of the Oriental Hostel’s exposed bathrooms and our noisy neighbors there, we moved across Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling to the Broadway Budget Hotel. We had encountered its sparkling environs our first day walking about Georgetown, but it was 70 MYR a night, and 80 MYR Friday through Sunday, so we waited until Monday to move in.

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Unfortunately, we hadn’t booked ahead, so we had to pay 80 MYR for one night in a room with a TV, where we watched too many Harry Potter movies and part of Life of Pi. We would have paid the extra 10 MYR for the weekend, but again, failing to book ahead, they ran out of non-TV rooms. Unwilling to pay 90 MYR a night when when we had to move our stuff anyway. Plus, our original budget per night for housing had been for 60 MYR, so we decided to move on.

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Pros: very clean and professional, provides toilet paper, soap, and thick towels, air conditioning, includes window, bathroom, wardrobe with drawer and pole (no hangers), a tiny desk (more of a vanity), plenty of hooks behind the door, each floor has own wifi router, three outlets, one of which is universal. Your room is mopped every day. Rooms also include a Keblat, pointing towards Mecca.

Cons: The hotel has Indian concierges, but bargaining is not allowed. The lobby has benches, a TV, and drinks for sale from a refrigerator, but no tables. The outlets are far from the desk, but near a tiny shelf. There is no elevator, and people smoke in the stairwell. You trade away personality and history for the new, shiny rooms.

Also, depending on the room and the weather, your can see great views.

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Eating Famous Street Food

Here is a picture of some wonton mee I had today for lunch, from Sri Weld Food Court:

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And here’s a picture of some wonton mee I had today for dinner, from New Lane:

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One was from a famous food stand, as promoted by a food brochure, and the other one was not. Both bowls were the large size and cost 4.50 MYR. The one I had for lunch was good. The one I had for dinner had more noodles and larger slices of BBQ pork, and came with a dish of sliced peppers in soy sauce, but before I added the soy sauce, seemed a bit bland.

Ultimately, I have to say the noodles from New Lane were a better deal. They filled me up, something that the wanton mee from lunch needed a nasi lemak to achieve the same level of fullness.

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Those are famous nasi lemaks, by the way. One is shrimp (not shelled) and one is dried anchovies with part of a salted egg. They are supposed to be spicier than usual. They’re the only ones I’ve had, so all I can is that they are good. The rice was fragrant and the sambas was spicy and savory.

But in terms of taste, even in terms of quantity, there wasn’t that much of a difference. Maybe my sen se of taste just isn’t refined enough, but both wonton mees tasted good. The famous one from New Lane is not much different from the one from Sri Weld, and probably wouldn’t be that much different from the one from Red Garden or a random stand on Chulia Street. The only thing is that Sri Weld is a lunch time food court, while the rest are evening eateries.

I wanted to go to the New Lane stand to prove my hypothesis, but I also wanted to see New Lane at night. The previous time I had been there it had been pretty dead. Saturday night it was full, and some locals had driven cars to eat there. The air was hazy from the smoke and steam coming from the various vendors.

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It’s a bit of a walk to get to New Lane from the UNESCO part of Georgetown (south of the Komtor), but it’s less touristy than Red Garden or Chulia Street. The worst part is crossing Jalan Doktor Lee Chwee Leong. I suggest taking Jalan Penang south and then crossing the overpass.

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New Lane is called Lorong Baru in Malay. You’ll know you’re there when you see the sign for Sunway Hotel.

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Mike can’t stomach most street food, so he bought the ingredients for PB&Js tonight. We’re going to Kuala Lumpur tomorrow, where hopefully the food will be less touristy, as in it won’t swing between really cheap hawker stalls of questionable hygiene to really pricy clean places with 5-star aspirations.

China House: An artsy place for a slow meal, or two

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I love serendipitous sightseeing the best. China House was one of these. I saw the business card for it while staying at Temple Tree and carried it with me to Penang. So I did look for it, but it’s not something I could have found on Tripadvisor or Lonely Planet. It’s also across the street from a temple I would have visited, but who has time to stop at every shop/restaurant there is?

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Actually, I was apprehensive about going in, and hemmed and hawed a bit before going into the expensive-looking cafe. 12 MYR for a slice of cake? Not when I can get a banana roti for under 3. I even consider the 6 MYR slice of ice cream cake at Jaya too dear. But it’s an interesting space–three houses turned into a mini-mall, if you can call a place that only has eateries and an art gallery a mall.

It’s a nice place to go to to escape the heat midday, and soak up a bit of contemporary artwork and traditional architecture. I have to admit I was more interested in the layout of the space than the artwork on the wall.

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There was live music that night, there were burgers on the menu at one of the restaurants, and we had hardly touched any of our daily budget, so I took Mike there for dinner that night. We got there just in time to see the sunset through the ruin of a house next door.

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Unfortunately the Courtyard Cafe and Burger Bar was closed, so we ordered from the Canteen & Bar, expecting fancy bar portions (i.e. small).

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The 12 MYR fries could have been a meal, but they were oversalted. We still ate most of it to taste the five flavors of dip they came with. They were all good, though these same ginger ones were a little strong. Even the “tomato sauce” wasn’t your average ketchup; it had a mild red wine flavor. Mostly, it was fun to identify the sauce and then judge which one you liked best. I think I liked the red wine vinaigrette one. I may try to replicate it someday. It shouldn’t be too hard–just substitute some vinegar for lemon juice when making mayonnaise.

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Mike’s Thai chicken buns were pretty small, though pretty good. They had all the spicy creaminess of green curry, but without the curry. I also liked the mint garnishes. My miso duck quesadillas were a full-sized meal though. It came with papaya and corn guacamole, and I thought they were bullshitting me, because it seemed like corn salsa, but the red sweet stuff was actually papaya. Unusually good.

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Of course, between the exorbitant drink prices and the salty fries, we drank a lot of water. Also, besides the occasional sightseer, we had the romantic courtyard to ourselves.

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I was feeling spendy, and we hadn’t exceeded our budget yet, so I wanted to try one of Beach St. Bakery’s many pricy desserts.

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But we were pretty full after dinner, and what we could hear of the band from the courtyard didn’t seem that enticing, so I dragged Mike upstairs for awhile to look at the art gallery. When he had had enough of that, we went downstairs to order a pot of chamomile tea from Kopi C. Espresso to help us sleep. To counteract that, we got a slice of their three-layer coffee and chocolate cake.

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The cake was really good. Dense, but soft and moist. And generously layered with coffee frosting and chocolate chips. It’s a cake that’s meant to be savored. Especially while playing math games on your table overlay.

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On that note, China House does have wifi. Mike and I used it to look up what bright thing was next to the crescent moon that night (Saturn). But most adults at the place were actually not on their devices too much, which was nice. In the baker/cafe, if the adults were not talking, the were using he crayons to doodle or play games. This is ironic, because I remember when crayons at restaurant tables were for kids. Most of the kids I saw there were playing video games on iPads or taking pictures. What does that foreshadow about our future society?

The Blue Mansion: An Empty House

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It’s official name is the Cheong Fatt Tze mansion, but googling blue mansion Penang will bring it up. It’s won all of these awards from UNESCO and Lonely Planet and Tripadvisor, so I guess I was expecting too much. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a beautiful and historic mansion, and I’d love to stay at their B & B if we had the budget for it, but the tour wasn’t all I was expecting.

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I’ve been to the Jim Thompson House in Bangkok, so I was expecting something like that. Mike and I had dallied online, so we went to the last tour of the day at 3 pm. Also, it was a Saturday. There were a lot of people, not to mention two little girls, one of which was Upset before the tour even began. But worse than that were the adults on the tour who who ignored our guide and went about taking pictures of the interior. Even if they didn’t understand the English language tour, do you have to be so loud that the rest of us can’t hear the one tour guide?

Much was made of how the tour guides were trained. Or guide was a pro as far as entertainment goes. She told a lot of jokes, and gave some background on Cheong Fatt Tze’s life, the structure of the house, and Feng Shui. But it wasn’t very thorough. I don’t know how practical it would have been with so many people, but we weren’t shown too many specific things about the great mansion.

We learned about Cheong’s life in China, Indonesia, and Georgetown. How he got rich and bought the land in 1880 and took 8 years to build. The main house has 8 rooms, with a gold and wooden divider screen with symbols for happiness, luck, and money. This took 15 minutes of the hour long tour.

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We moved into the courtyard where we got an introduction to feng shui, where letting in shui (rain) through the courtyard represents collecting money. As the water slowly drains away, you can slowly start spending your money.

We were shown A photograph of Cheong’s 7th wife (out of 8). She was 17 when 70 year old Cheong married her, and she was apparently her favorite. Though I found later through wikipedia that Cheong raised 6 sons in his blue mansion, it was his youngest son, by the 7th wife, who inherited the house. Cheong put a clause in his will that the house could not be sold until his son was dead.

The only other things of note were that we were shown the colored bowls from which Chinese opera scene mosaics on the balcony were cut, and were given a demonstration of the yin-yang blinds, which are blinds that lock.

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Part the thing was, the house was pretty trashed when it was sold, and the family had taken much of the furniture, so there wash’t much household stuff to show. Whatever was left behind was put into a room without much documentation, along with a donated wedding bed and instruments.

The hour long tour cost 12 MYR each, and I’m not sure I recommend it. In addition to the 15 minutes were spent talking in the downstairs lobby, and the tour ended 15 minutes early, with time for you to wander around and take pictures. So if they let you, just wander around and take pictures. I know, I know, it’s all in good cause. They are renovating one of the wings currently, and that takes money.

The best part of the tour was after the official tour, wandering through the B&B office, another tour guide, or at least mansion employee, saw us looking at some photographs and explained them to us. They were of daughter and daughter in laws, mostly. The widow of Cheong’s youngest son, the one who had to wait until he died to sell the house, was only a teenager when she married him. Mike said she looked bitchy in the photos. We also saw the guest room keys.

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I wonder about Cheong. He was dubbed the Rockerfeller of the East, but his penchant for fancy houses reminds me of Hearst and Hearst Castle, whose tours I went on frequently as a child. You see this great house and think it was his pet, but he probably had a dozen others, at least one for each wife/family. Cheong had 8 wives altogether, and many sons and daughters. At least one daughter-in-law was a famous actress. None of them were able to continue Cheong’s businesses. I wonder what happened to them.

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Paradoxical Pilates

One of the benefits/drawbacks of slow travel is that you get to have a little bit of normal routine, so to try and establish that normal routine today, I broke out one of the yoga mats Mike’s been complaining about dragging around and did some Pilates.

I like Pilates, but in conception it is such a weird sport. It’s yoga for ballet, which is weird because yoga seems to be all about mindfulness, health, and wholeness, whereas ballet is all about competitiveness, anorexia, and balancing your entire body weight on one toe. Ballet shoes go up there with high heels as the new foot-binding (see Penang Museum plaque below).

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Think about it: ballet dancers who have to stand en pointe are putting themselves through a lot of pain and a lot of risk just to look dainty, similar to the function of flower bud foot binding. High heels put women through a lot of pain and risk of injury so that we can look, if not dainty, at least attractive. And yes, I still wear heels occasionally. I’m just saying.

Back to the original subject, I asked Mike if there could be any two sports more unalike than yoga and ballet, besides the fact that both primarily practiced by women. Mike suggested golf and football as the masculine equivalent. Can you imagine a golf regimen for football players? A thoughtful exercise routine that can prepare you to be smashed into?