January 3-4. Tokyo
Max leaves for the airport, sadly, and Sash treats us to a quick tour of the Ambassador’s residence, a gorgeous mansion untouched in the war that became General MacArthur’s headquarters.
D and I then head to the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno Park. By now I am tackling the subway full-on. The museum houses the extensive collections of Japanese cultural artifacts that seem surprisingly modern (12thcentury on) with a great introductory overview of each art form – perfect for foreigners. D and I have lunch in the museum café (I love museum restaurants everywhere) and when we arrive the place is full with a waiting list. I enter my Latin alphabet name – the only non-hieroglyphs on the list and as we are the only white faces in the waiting area, I imagine that they’ll put 2 and 2 together. Which they very politely and graciously do, but it’s fun waiting in line for 15 minutes and watching people watching us as we watch what people order, how quickly they eat (there is no lingering) whether they are couples (mostly older) families (mostly multi-generational) how their kids behave (they run all over the place – surprisingly). Not surprisingly everyone waits patiently. We are now chopstick pros and order lovely Bento boxes. I look forward to the museum shop which turns out to be a great disappointment and I wonder about the lack of mercantilism. They could sell fabrics and kimonos and placemats and jewelry, but it’s mostly trinkets and small items – again wrapped up tight in beautiful paper so you can’t figure out what it’s supposed to be. I don’t get it, but as D points out, no one is asking me to be their marketing consultant.
It’s our last night in Tokyo and we go with Sash to a very hip yakitori place in Rappongi Hills where we are (thanks to its #2 rating on Tripadvisor) among a totally tourist crowd. First time this has happened. On one side is a French family with three small boys under the age of 6 (hard to imagine – I could barely get to Cape Cod with two boys) and on the other are very wealthy young Russians wearing expensive watches and dropping a whole lot of money on expensive sake. It’s a bittersweet night as it’s not at all clear when we’ll see Sash again, and very likely not for many months. We drink sake until our cup literally runs over (a Japanese gesture of hospitality) and then we drink it out of the wooden saucer.
On the Thai air flight to Bangkok we are – literally – the only white people. The flight takes 7 hours, which seems bizarre as I think of Asia as more compact. But it’s north to south – as far as Toronto to Venezuela. About ½ hour out of Tokyo we fly over Mt. Fuji which is a thrill.
The Bangkok airport is relatively calm – I recall it being a madhouse last April when I was here with Max, and we hop in a public taxi (meter, please!) and fight traffic for an hour into the sprawling high rise metropolis that marks almost every Asian city on the move. It’s hot, it’s humid, it smells like humanity, the tuk-tuks belch smoke, the scooters careen around corners, people eat at open air food stalls, the electric wires hang in giant loops across storefronts and open balconies and we pull up to the Shangri-La hotel on the Chaya Praha riverbank and check into the gorgeous Krungthep wing.
January 5-9: Bangkok Daze
We spend days enjoying the Bangkok vibe and then taking refuge from it in our lovely hotel, which is my new philosophy: When you’re in the midst of sweltering humanity, stay in a great place. The Thai people we meet are warm and funny and helpful and very mercantile. Everything is for sale – either in small stalls, or shops or massive malls – dozens of them — connected by skytrain. The city is either shabby and showing the wear of humidity and pollution or brand spanking new, and not much in between. We spend hours watching the boats (all sizes) chug up and down the Chaya Praha river – enormous flatbed carriers, traditional longboats, public ferries, various hotel shuttles dressed up like small Chinese junks. We visit the gorgeous Mandarin Oriental and Peninsula hotels, the Royal Palace, the Emerald Buddha (actually jade) the giant reclining Buddha in Wat Pho, the Jim Thompson House Museum, take tuk-tuk rides, take riverboat rides and hang out in the sun until it gets too hot then go inside and drink gin and tonics.
The city is packed with tourists who seem either very young or fairly old and evidently it still draws many sex tourists. We go to Patpong one night to be voyeurs but there’s not much to see. And what there is to see is depressing: lots of young (or young-looking, please God) bored girls hanging around in what used to be called two piece bathing suits ready to pole-dance. They look like middle-schoolers hanging out with their friends, checking their phones and chewing gum. Touts stand outside with a menu for various shows all of which start with the name by which we affectionately call a young cat: You want to watch ping pong? smoke a cigarette? play darts (huh?). And it goes downhill from there. Being smart and very mercantile, they’ve created a night market through the Patpong red light district in order to draw in families (again, huh?) and women who shop while the men drink beer and check out the ..um.. action. One short street over and it switches from young girls to young guys and as soon as we figured this out, D was outta there. P-town has nothing on this.
And you can’t help but notice that Thailand is very, very serious about its King, whose portrait is everywhere – reading the newspaper, in full dress regalia, greeting visitors, looking kindly and professorial. In these portraits he appears to be about 50, when he’s actually 85 and about to leave behind quite a succession dilemma (evidently the Crown Prince is not Mr. Popular).
We leave Bangkok with mixed emotions – a great R&R stopover between Japan and family, and before departing for Myanmar with old and new faces as part of the Brandeis Alumni travel program, (for which we are the nominal trip hosts). Next stop, Yangon.