Friday, April 27, 2007

"One night in Bangkok and the world goes, Oyster!"

I never get the lyrics to that song correct, and when Zoltan sang it that way at karaoke the other night, I knew I was not alone. It’s actually quite hard to sing the correct lyrics, “One night in Bangkok and the World’s, your, OYSTER” and make it sound good, it feels like a tongue-twister somehow.

At 7.45am, Roque, Eric’s roommate telephoned my room (I’m always convinced I’ve missed some drill/rehearsal if someone calls me at this time) trying to inform us that both Eric and himself had training, at the Seahorse Pool, at 10am (in 2hrs and 15 minutes time!) Nice. This is a very early hour for anyone involved in entertainment, as most of our shows don’t come down ‘til after midnight and even then the adrenalin keeps you awake another few hours before you’re able to sleep. He was, unfortunately, misinformed because there is a crew member onboard with both their names (his name is Eric Roque) and although I can see how he could get confused with names on a list, at 7.45AM I was hard-pressed to understand the urgency of the situation.

HOWEVER, this all seems like a disant memory when I consider the magnitude of today’s experiences. BANGKOK, THAILAND! This is the statue of the Hermit Doctor at the entrance of the Grand Palace Tour.

Eventually there were twelve of us at 9.30am, on a mission to get to Bangkok from where the ship was docked, in Laem Chabang. It was a two and a half hour drive, and $23 for a round-trip each, which if you know anything about black taxi cabs in London, is an amazingly cheap price, even with 6 in a taxi (it was a comfortable van). Brits, that’s $138, or £65, for 5hrs of solid driving! I can’t get from central London to Kingston at 2am on a Saturday night for that money!
We snoozed, chatted and giggled our way to Bangkok. We were eventually dropped at 12.10pm outside the Grand Palace, home of the Emerald Buddha, and told we would be picked up again at 5.30pm. Check out the opulence.

Straight into the Grand Palace, and 200BHT (Baht, 30 is $1) bought us admission, and Eric and I, special children that we are, decided to get audio guides. They were 100BHT each, and well worth it.
The glittering golden throne rooms, statues, towers and shrines are amazing. Of course, you have to imitate them (sincerest form of flattery)
Surrounding the temple and subsidiary buildings, there’s a covered terrace, whose walls are covered in 178 mural panels inspired by the Ramakien epic poem (nope, I haven't heard of it before!). Here’s my favourite image, this young warrior is clearly trying to get a signal on his cel-phone, look at the expression, so true to life.

The culmination of the tour, for me, was the chapel which housed the Emerald Buddha, which is, in truth, made from one piece of jade, or jasper, but is none the less beautiful.
These 121 gold figurines frame the inner chamber where the Buddha is, which you cannot photograph, but I think they’re amazing. Inside, you kneel so that your feet do not point to the Buddha, (this is very rude in Thai culture), and we were lucky enough that whilst we knelt in contemplation, a large group of children, all dressed in the orange robes worn by Thai monks, entered the chamber and began chanting in unison. I think Eric, who has a great deal of respect for the Buddhist faith, was quite moved, and I have to say I was honoured to have been there.
The Buddha is atop a glittering gold shrine with several tiers and lesser gold Buddha images, and is 31 inches high. The piece of jade from which it was carved was found in 1434, and originally covered in plaster and thought to be an ordinary image. It was when the nose flaked off, revealing the green stone underneath, that the abbot who’d found it believed it to be emerald and the name seems to have stuck.

It was exceptionally hot walking around, especially when I had to put a small jacket on to cover my shoulders whilst walking through the palace grounds. You could rent clothes, long trousers etc. if wearing only shorts, it’s forbidden to be scantily clad. Then again, if you look at what the monks wear, ie. one shoulder completely exposed, it’s a strange concept…..

We broke from the group and decided, when we were told by a man who “wanted nothing from you visitors, I am a student” that the reclining Buddha next door was closed until 5pm, to walk to the amulet market. An important discovery we later made, when we went to the reclining Buddha and saw that it had been very much open from 8am and closed at 6pm, was that very often, locals tell you things are closed when in truth they are not. Why would they do this you ask? So that they can offer you a tour/tuk tuk/directions to their business/get some mileage and money out of you and THEN take you to what you really want to see.
We were hustled into taking a boat tour soon after. The lady wanted 900BHT each for a one hour tour, that’s $30 each, and ridiculous. We ended up paying $20 total. I have to say, it was wonderful. This is our driver. We saw the back of this seated gold Buddha, and the air was cool and refreshing as we powered along down local canals. It was fascinating to see these houses on stilts, out over the water. They have anything from ingenious outdoor dish-drying racks with splash-guards for the canal-water, terraces, hammocks, and a wonderfully organised network of tarpaulin/Tupperware/cans/shrines/eating areas outside.
There were women on boats throughout the tour who approached and tried to sell us various trinkets. We never bought anything, but I enjoyed haggling with this woman just for her great laugh.

Eric bought this floral offering, and until we found a suitable Buddha (back in the market later on) to leave it with,I wore it as a bangle like this, which is totally acceptable I was told and it smelled absolutely gorgeous.
Back into the market, we ate street food for lunch. These kebabs were great. We tried Durian fruit! It was actually very sweet and the flesh is bright yellow, with the consistency of a very big, dry lychee. We ate it quickly, before it started to smell too bad!

The amulets on sale at the amulet market ranged from tiny antique-looking figures to bigger flashy-looking round images of the Buddha surrounded by towers representing the 8 directions of the kingdom. You could buy little plastic holders for your amulet, so you could string it around your neck.

I wanted to go to the Kao San Road. See, my sister went there while travelling on her gap year and I’ve always been jealous(!) of her experiences in market and backpacker-haven there. Against all the advice from the tuk tuk driver that it was closed until an hour later, we paid 40BHT (and I actually found myself haggling! Over the difference of 20cents!) instead of 50, and arrived at the busy market 10 minutes later. Tuk tuks are great little three-wheel taxis that scoot through traffic, cutting up all larger vehicles. We imagine they are called tuk tuks because of the unusual chugging noise of the engine.
Eric bought a highly amusing T-shirt, which I will have to photograph and publish, because I cannot find it in myself to write out the slogan it bears!
Here we are, note the huge Chang beer in my hand, it’s a nice Thai beer.

We jumped back in a tuk tuk (here’s our driver) and went to the temple of the Reclining Buddha, or Wat Po. You actually were allowed to photograph this one. It’s 151 feet long, golden, and has mother-of-pearl inlaid into it’s huge feet. It was stunning.

At 5.30 we met up with our driver, and didn’t get back into Laem Chabang port until 8.15pm, past the deadline I should’ve been back. See, I was on port-manning tonight from 8pm, oops!
Eric too was on port-manning, but we quickly found people from our department to switch out with, and got in on another big taxi, $5 each for a 45 minute drive(!) into Pattaya, south of Laem Chabang, known as the big, um…party-style resort of Thailand.

This is where you can go and see late-night shows where young women perform tricks like shooting darts/ping-pong balls from their, well, otherwise private parts. Although I can understand the comedy value of such a show, I hadn’t warmed to the idea of seeing it, and if I’m honest I don’t think my relationship with my boyfriend is old enough or solidified enough for such a shared encounter! Can you imagine: “So, did you ENJOY that dear?!” Amazingly (I mean, he is a guy!) my man said he had no desire to see the show that so many of my fellow cast and crew were going to.

Wonderful. So we left the masses again, to go walking on the beachfront, which was quieter than the strip across the street and quite beautiful. The water was warm, and the sand was fine and cool. The benches had these great life-size statues on and around them

OK, so Eric just dropped coffee on my laptop, and now the full-stop button doesn’t work! So because I want to publish, and until I can rectify this problem, we must imagine the full-stops, like the one NOW
Walking some of the streets off from the main strip, like this one, we found bars with English names like Big Ben, Only Fools and Horses etc and I found myself once again ashamed of my countrymen on holiday There were drunk “lager louts” stumbling around outside the dancing-girl bars, soaking wet -if you’re too drunk, often women throw buckets of cold water over you to sober you up- with a pretty young girl for support that they’d have NO chance with unless they were paying for her, er, company It didn’t exactly fill me with patriotic pride

We ate at this gorgeous “Sky Bar” restaurant on the 27th floor of a hotel on the strip We got this lovely corner table, check out our view!
The Thai food was good, but two of the seafood dishes we ordered were so spicy I eventually gave up, nibbling on cashew nuts while Eric ploughed on

Next to the restaurant was another open-air bar called Green Tree where we enjoyed drinks before returning to the ship, I had a very impressive concoction in a pineapple as you can see, and Eric drank some rum girly drinks!
We got home in an open-air taxi, which cost us very little and was a gorgeous breezy drive

The next day, I went back to Pattaya with Paul to pick up a suit he was having made after 10am crew-drill We ate lunch in the adjacent mall, in a teppanyaki restaurant This chef was called Matrix, awesome! He was very skilled at his job, throwing all manner of implements and food up in the air and catching them in the top of his chef’s hat
I met up with Eric after his rehearsal, and we got him some Pad Thai in a pretty and secluded restaurant, before falling asleep for an hour in a foot-massage parlour for 200BHT each It was sooooooo relaxing, Eric did warm to it after a while(!) a great end to our time here

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Go before midnight, or you'll Miss Saigon!

As Eric said, how very very DISAPPOINTING! No bars spilling out onto the streets with punters basking in the humid night-time air, the jazz club we were so excited about closed, the whole town dark. When Eric, Simon (another French-Canadian, trombone player, nice guy) and I got to Saigon downtown at 12.45am, not a great deal was going on.

I have to disagree with the musical, the heat was definitely NOT on in Saigon. Even more irritatingly, we were conned into a $30 cab fare by a man with a FAKE meter in his car, masquerading as a taxi! He even took the fake light off the roof of his car once he'd started driving us away! I nearly went ballistic, but held it together for the sake of the company I was in.

(Just for comparison, the price on the way back? $10, and the guy followed us around, he was so pleased with Eric's spur-of-the-moment offer.)

We found the only open bar (24 hour so they say) at the shuttle drop-off point, in the Rex Hotel. It was a roof-terrace up on the 5th floor, the top, and had that beautiful faded and creepy atmosphere of somewhere truly lived-in and unique. Here we are. Check out the elephants beside the "stage"! The hotel was built in 1956, so has seen some things I'm sure.

I drank some rum-based drink called a Saigon Beauty, and Eric even tried a local speciality which was pork somehow skewered around a sugar cane. He never managed to actually eat the sugar cane, but said it was otherwise good.

Thinking the hotel bars must be the way to go, we tried two others, the ritzy Sheraton and the Caravelle, which had more character, but none were open.

Back on the pier, there was a party set up by the locals, with a food stall, fake watches, DVDs, T Shirts and the like. We hung around for a while, then turned in at maybe 3am.

Next day, and another view from the back seat of the bus (it's where all the cool people hang) into Downtown. We went in to the indoor section of the Ben Thanh market today, which looks like this. They have Bath n Bodyworks stuff here even. Look how many eyelashes I bought for 30,000 Dongs/under $2! That's 10 pairs! That should see me out til the end of my contract, and beyond! This lady outside had two types of fruit in these buckets slung on her shoulders, and she's proof that those Vietnamese hats aren't just a gimmick, they really do keep the sun off your neck, and they really are worn by people.

I went to my mentally-noted-yesterday-as-favourite store, Orchids, and bought 2 dresses, one of which was altered for me and taken in at the sides (so I could look purty!) while Eric waited. Look closely, see a man who's bored, much? But we did find this battery-powered implement. Tazer-raquet? Staff-slapper? Fly-swatter? I like it!

At 11.30, we took a taxi to the FV Hospital again. I called up Truong, the dentist, on my English mobile phone and told her we'd be 15 minutes late She said she wasn't worried. I wish I could've said the same!

There was a comedy moment when, as I lay back in the chair and Truong went to put the beautiful little porcelain-colour cap she'd made yesterday on my tooth, it pinged up into the air, went missing and we all spent 5 minutes crawling around on the floor overturning every speck of dust we could find looking for it. Actually, because of the fact we were leaving at 2.30pm and it was already 1pm, (no time to make a new cap and $223 paid,) it could've all turned out very UNfunny. BUT it turned up in the assistant nurse's pocket, quite a logistical feat really!

She filed it and I bit down on carbon paper so she could file the coloured 'sticking-up' bits more and realign my bite. It feels SO much better, but kinda tight if that makes any sense... This is us, note me, silently thanking my lucky stars it's all over.

On the drive back, I saw this guy, taking his matress for a bike-ride. Amazing.
Back to the pier, and we decided to eat shrimp at the makeshift food stall by the ship, and I mean right by the ship, see? This was my view. And this is the stall, wait, do you see a man now ACTUALLY SHOPPING?! HMM?! I helped him choose an understated yet smart Omega 'Seamaster' (of course) knock-off for $20.

We also ate crab, (beer crab, a local speciality) one each, see? And although the claws were great, the rest, which spurted bright orange goo when I tried to crack it, was probably best left alone. We drank coconut water, straight from the coconut, and it was so good we drank two each. Yes, I'll write it: this is Eric, showing us his lovely pair of coconuts!

Back onboard I went to dinner at 8.30pm in the Dining Room in one of my new dresses. Eric had a difficult show tonight, he is one of two featured musicians, himself and the drummer Mark, in an amazing show from one of the guest headline acts, Naki, who plays piano solidly for one hour "around the world" ie A Nightingale Sang in Barclay Square to represent England, Danny Boy for Ireland, Kalinka for Russia, New York New York for the US, you get the picture. He just feels so exposed on the stage all alone like that!

It was then to the O (O for Officers!) Bar for darts (I was on form and won in record time!) til late.