So, one of the biggest Thai festivals of the year took place on Sunday evening. And though I may have mentioned it, I have not made a big deal out of the fact that I have been sick this past week. However, on Saturday and Sunday, though the antibiotics had taken care of my sinus infection, the initial cold virus swooped in for a comeback. As such, much of my weekend was spent asleep or half dazed and over-medicated.
On Saturday, after finally getting out of bed around 3:30pm, I decided I must make the trek back to MBK to sort out a phone. Previously I praised MBK's ability to hack, crack and otherwise get phones to work. However, we were unaware that besides all that, the hand-me-down phone we had also included a broken microphone. Theorizing that a repair of that nature would be slightly more costly, it was time to admit defeat and purchase a phone.
So I found my way to the bus stop to get to MBK and rode the bus to and from MBK successfully on my own. With only one pushy tuk-tuk driver to tell off. Tuk-tuks are for tourists. They are pushy scam artists and if you are white they never leave you alone. The going 'scam' for tuk-tuk drivers is to offer a "flat rate" fee of 150 baht. Fare for an air-conditioned taxi is often 1/3 of that. So this particular tuk-tuk driver outside MBK thought he would approach me, get ME to name a price (no, you name a starting price), and then thought he would ask for 200 baht. I may be new but I'm not that naive. I walked away and caught the bus for 8 baht.
I do however, wish that I could brag as such about my phone purchase. Another lesson learned: don't try to haggle when you're brain fogged, sick and medicated. It severely hampers your bartering skills and lowers your guard for how much you are willing to pay just to get out of the human chaos. Time and place utility though I suppose, I needed a working phone. So I ended up with a second hand nokia for 1,500 baht, which is about $50 U.S. Not bad, all things considered. But upon further inspection I decided I'd probably been overcharged. Another English teacher, who is half Thai and speaks Thai - so she doesn't have to deal with the tourist treatment nearly as much - got the same phone second hand for 900 baht ($30.07). The ladies in the office helped me look it up - NEW the phone should cost 1,180 baht ($39.43). Well crap. Next time, I will ask one of the Thai ladies in the office to go with me and help - they are more than happy to. I'll still just be proud of myself for navigating the bus and avoiding the tuk tuk driver. I was quite determined to travel downtown unassisted. And, the phone does work.
So, Loy Krathong. I'm taking a lot of information from wikipedia and observation here. Basically - the majority of Bangkok converges on the river to release "krathong" out into the water. A Krathong is made up of banana leaves, flowers, incense and candles - or more recently bread (dissolves and the fish eat it, more environmentally friendly). It is supposed to honor the river spirits, ask for forgiveness from the river and bring good luck. It is kind of a conglomeration of Buddhism, Hinduism and the Thai animist beliefs of various tribes - so actually pinpointing one meaning for the festival is impossible. Loy Krathong also coincides with the Lanna (northern Thai) festival of Yi Peng, where paper lanterns are lit and sent up into the sky to make merit. The hot air from the flame propels the paper lantern up, or at least in theory - I saw several sink that had to be put out by festival goers down below those launching Yi Peng off the bridge. So, although Loy Krathong comes from the capital, and Yi Peng comes from the north, today they are both celebrated concurrently across the country. Chiang Mai is supposed to be the best Loy Krathong/Yi Peng festival - so at some point I would like to see it there. However that's not to say the Bangkok version wasn't a show.
So, most of Sunday I spent in bed wishing my cold would go away. I got up to do laundry, got up to hang it out to dry, got up to go get some food - and laid back down after each trip. So around 8pm I decided that I wasn't going to let the fact that I felt awful keep me from seeing one of the best festivals of the year. Dose of Paracetamol (Acetaminophen in the U.S.), some water and a hearty dose of hubris and I was off. Not actually knowing how to get there, feeling kinda of blah and thinking this is an important venture, I decided to hail a taxi. Not a tuk-tuk, but generally get in a taxi, say the name of the place you want to go, done. However I forgot to consider a couple of things. One: when there is traffic, as in when there is a festival, walking will almost always be faster than anything on four wheels. Two: Bangkok is quite similar to West Lafayette in it's curse of one-way roads, something I had not noticed as a pedestrian. And Three: simply getting in a taxi and asking to go to the river isn't very clear, since there are quite a few points on the river you can go to.
So, in my first cab, we went toward one of the larger bridges, saw some people with Krathongs and decided that was a good spot. I did get a nice view out across the river as we crossed the bridge. My driver spoke a little English, was impressed that I could count to ten in Thai (poorly) and attempted to teach me the phrases "I love you" and "I like you" in Thai. The trip meter said 59 baht, so I handed him 60 baht. He handed me back 20 baht and a slip of paper with his phone number and an Americanized name on it. Uncertain how to respond to that, I said thank you, smiled, probably giggled and placed the number and change in my wallet. He drove off and I began exploring the bridge and the area underneath it where people were launching krathong into the river. I realized 1) This was not the big event, this was a smaller gathering and 2) I was pretty much the only farang around. I attempted to walk up on the bridge to get a better view of the river, and was whistled back down by a Thai police officer. People had been walking on the bridge only moments prior. Alright, well now what.
I could see the Yi Peng floating up into the sky in the distance, so I started walking towards them. However after a couple of blocks, I decided that was futile, walked back and hailed another taxi. So the cost of a little adventure involves more than one taxi, it could be worse.
My second taxi driver spoke no English. He did understand Loy Krathong though, and managed to get me quite close to the heart of the commotion at the Rama VIII Bridge (the one I have photos of already). Eventually he motioned to me to get out and walk because of the horrid traffic jam. I paid him and got out of the taxi and joined the shoulder to shoulder swarm of people. People were walking in between cars, buses and motorbikes because traffic was not moving at all. It reminded me of the people swarming toward the bridge in the new War of the Worlds movie, and I pushed that slightly disconcerting idea out of my mind. Thankfully, crowd control is often managed by the Thai cultural idea that you should not show anger or lose your temper. So despite the shoulder to shoulder crowding, there isn't really a panic or mad rush to make it dangerous, people remain patient. Fingers crossed. I got up to the main festival area - lined with food and drink vendors, large krathongs made for a contest, beggars, beauty pageant contestants and people of all ages. I purchased a bottle of water - was asked "where you from?" USA. "Oh! Your country very good!" I appreciated that.
I made my way to the river bank, pretty sure I wandered straight through the 'back stage' area of the beauty pageant, and a Thai man helped hoist me up over the stone wall separating the river from the bank. I got pictures right there of people launching their Krathong, and several people swimming in the murky depths. A wave rolled up and splashed my feet, I decided to find some higher ground after a few photos. So I turned back around and turned my attention to climbing the Rama VIII bridge - the main festivities were occurring beneath it. A staircase on either side of the bridge was shoulder to shoulder with people going up and down. I made my way up and walked along the pedestrian portion of the bridge where people were launching their Yi Ping. There were many Thais with good cameras, probably many from the arts university - and I was envious of them. I also wished I knew more Thai so I could have a conversation with them. I managed to get some decent photos with my camera none-the-less. I think there is also a couple's aspect to sending up the Yi Peng, because many couples were launching them together - some with the message "I love you" written on them. But that could be a modern imposition on the original holiday - I'm not sure. I enjoyed just sitting on the guard rail between the road and the pedestrian crosswalk and watching people launch their Yi Peng. It was peaceful and reminded me why I long to travel and see these things. It was great just to wander around and observe things at my own leisure. Finally, I decided I had better return home. So I tried to make my way to the other side of the Rama VIII bridge to hail a taxi going towards my apartment. At this point, I was actually all the way over in Nonthaburi, the suburb of Bangkok across the river (and the larger Loy Krathong gathering point). However navigating the staircase was even more crowded and slow going - it seemed a fool's errand to try and scale the stairs on the opposite side after finally reaching the bottom of the first staircase.
So, I wandered back through the vendors (by the way, if you can sell it, it was for sale on the street that night). I did not partake of the food, already feeling under the weather and not sure I trusted the food - or at least my stomach's ability to handle it, and went about looking for a taxi. Of course, in the stand still traffic with many others looking for a taxi, this was nearly impossible. So I looked toward the motor bike taxi operators. The first declined, and said as a farang, better to get a taxi. I think he was afraid I was going to freak out riding the motor bike - or he just didn't want to travel that far. The second motor bike driver I found agreed, though maybe slightly overcharged, at that point my headache was going full throttle from all the lights and I just wanted to get home. I still think there was some sort of divine intervention keeping me from having an absolute claustrophobic panic attack in the middle of that festival - or maybe I was just too out of it already from being sick. It was 100 baht for the motor bike ride straight to my apartments, not too bad considering the motor bike can duck and weave around traffic and get you where you are going much faster than the four-wheeled beasts. And a heck of a lot better than the tuk-tuk driver trying to charge twice that for less than a third the distance I traveled on the motor bike. We drove over yet another large bridge - I've got my north and south all mixed up so I can't say which direction I was from Rama VIII, but I got yet another view of all of the lights out across the river driving past. It was exhilarating having the wind rip past, nearly shutting my eyelids for me.
After all that, I took some more cold medicine and called it a night. And quite a night it was. My goal now: to save up and purchase a digital SLR before next year's Loy Krathong festival. I would love to see the festival in Chiang Mai. Also preferrably to not be sick during the festival - but the timing of getting sick is hard to coordinate.