We stood at a stall in Bangkok’s Chatuchak market, flipping through piles of small fabric pouches with bright stitching and wavering between the cobalt blue with leaf green accents, the orange-pink flowers or the purple-red elephants. Despite being tagged at 100 Thai bahts each (about $4 Cdn) we steeled ourselves to barter. D and I were already licking our wounds after the rookiest of rookie mistakes – leaving the hotel in a cab that hadn’t switched on the meter without first negotiating a price, resulting in double the going fare.
At the stall, we spoke like gangsters, low and crooked-mouthed. “What do you think, 4 for the price of 3?” “Let’s go lower, 280 bahts for 4?” “Yeah, 280, hold firm! Be prepared to walk away.”
D set her shoulders and turned to the seller, “How much for 4?” The woman barely glanced at us and tossed out, “250.” We jumped on it before we talked ourselves into paying more. We are so bad at this.
D and I had decided to travel sans guide in Thailand. Guides had worked well in Vietnam but I’d grown tired of the well-meaning chatterbox we hired in Cambodia. He was enthusiastic and knowledgeable and efficient, able to rattle off historical names and dates and always smiling. Having an air conditioned car waiting with a driver proffering ice-cold water and facecloths was worth it alone, given the 34-feels-like-38 degree weather. But he also felt the need to explain every chisel mark of every bas-relief so when he gestured to a long wall showing monkeys fighting demons and said that it was one of eight different panels, we had to awkwardly convert our horrified “oh no’s” into fake-appreciative “ooh’s.”
Guide or no guide, the temples of Cambodia around Siem Reap show distinct personalities despite being just a few kilometres from each other. Bayon Temple in Angkor Thom compares to the Mexican architecture of Tikal or Chichen Itza, pyramidy with stairs up the face. The Banteay Srei temple mixes Hindu and Buddhist elements into intricate, curly designs in red sandstone, and the funeral temple of Pre Rup looks like a series of termite mounds made of brick.
Angkor Wat is the matriarch, an extensive complex with beehive towers surrounded by an immense moat. Walking around in the hot, damp air you feel like you are soaking in the atmosphere through your pores. Your breath catches when you watch the sun slide down behind the gates one day, then silhouette the towers as it rises again way too early the next morning, turning the sky from dark purple to light blue and then to yellow and orange.
But the standout temple was Ta Prohm, taken over by the jungle and left that way, with crumbling stone, giant balsa trees growing from the tops of walls and roots creeping down their faces like melted candle wax.
While I was grateful for the richer understanding that came with using a guide, his fate, and that of his Thai brothers, was sealed when, presumably having run dry of history, he explained how the spiders on the ruins spun webs to catch flies.
Between research and recommendations from friends, we made a loose plan for Thailand. Chatuchak was our first stop. The market has a permanent structure of stalls with walls, glass sliding doors and air conditioning along with Home Depot style signage: home furnishings, wood products and pet accessories. We backed up quickly when we stumbled into the puppy mill aisle and plunged instead into party favours. Out into the sunshine of the rickety weekend market and back in for glassware and the colourful fabric bags where we bought the pouches. We tried to double back at one point and got hopelessly lost in another adjacent market that was strictly local, with stall after stall of dead birds and live aquarium fish.
A visit to the night market near our hotel brought offers to watch women do unspeakable things with ping pong balls. We passed. But on the walk home found a local restaurant with the best panang beef curry I’ve ever had.
Our last day, we set out with confidence. The metered taxi cost a quarter of the previous day’s price and we dispatched the Golden Buddha temple with great efficiency, amusing ourselves by creating our own narrative for the friezes.
We avoided the sketchy tuk tuk driver who wanted to take us to three different places instead of where we’d asked to go and prided ourselves for the deal on the next one, negotiating only a short detour to the cheap ferry so we could continue by boat up the Chao Phraya river, something on our list.
Unfortunately, guides aren’t the only ones adept at hostage tourism and our tuk tuk driver diverted us to a private boat demanding $120 Cdn for a 1 hr tour. This, in a country where a 30 min taxi costs $3. I guess the sucker stamp from the Vietnamese pearl farm was indelible.
Old hands, we out-stubborned them down to $20 per person and eventually made our way to Wat Pho, now in the top five list of sights for this trip so far.
Wat Pho is the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, a bright gold Buddha, 150 feet long by 49 feet high, stretching out gracefully on his side. Outside, is a wonderland of stupa pillars and buildings with walls and roofs decorated in exquisite multi-coloured mosaics, eaves of gold-sequined dragons and galleries repeating Buddhas infinitely down each hallway.
We wandered in and out, trying to capture every view with each one more spectacular than the last. Living in the moment, with no one yapping at us, and promising ourselves to read all about it. Later.