So Wat: Eating and "Grasping" our Way from bangkok to Chiang Mai via Ayuthaya and Phitsanulok Reading Yasunari Kawabata

After a day or two in Bangkok, we caught a train north. Here's what that was like, most of the ride was just getting out of the clutches of Bangkok. It was good to be rid of cities.

leaving the station

train window


Siamese Dream train to Ayuthaya, ending with food and she-male festivities

We got off the train in Ayuthaya. Not sure why, we just didn't want to go all the way to Chiang Mai and pass up everything along the way. Sometimes you are on a train and pass by cool shit, wishing you would've gotten off. Like Lopburi (a town just north of Ayuthaya)—when we passed through, there were monkeys running rampant in the streets. As we heard their doppler-shifted shrieks and saw them cross the tracks in our wake, we could only say fuck and read about it in our guidebook, regretting that we hadn't disembarked to see for ourselves:

More than any other place in Thailand, Lopburi is a city besieged by monkeys. The city's original troop of monkeys (actually a type of macaque) inhabits the San Phra Kan (Kala Shrine) during the day and then crosses the street in the evening to roost in the halls of Prang Sam Yot. At some time in the past, the band split into two factions. The splinter troop, lead by a half-blind dominant male, gave up the sanctity of themselves by swinging from shop fronts and smearing excrement on the windshield of parked cars. Many human residents of the old city have been forced to attach special monkey foils to their television antennas, lest simian antics spoil TV reception. Some locals even swear that the city-dwelling monkeys have been known to board trains for other provinces, returning to Lopburi once their wanderlust is spent.

Note to self: next time get off the train at Lopburi. We didn't see any monkeys get on the train either. We did get off in Ayuthaya though. Ayuthaya is billed as the ancient capital of Siam or some such thing. Loads of wats and canals. We got off the train and walked to a river and took a ferry across the river. Here's a monk we saw on the ferry. What the photo doesn't show are the bad ass tattoos on his fingers.

Buddha on Ferry

We had some lunch on the river, at some karaoke bar with a band of strange characters including this guy with the most insane poofy-pompadour-flanked-by-payess-mullet-sideburns hairdo I've ever seen. Jess managed to snap a picture of this rare and exotic specimen, lets see if she posts it on her photo site. One thing I've noticed about "real" Thai food, or Thai food in Thailand, is that they are big on peppercorns, like clusters of these green unripe peppercorns (as seen in this photo). They seemed to find their way into most all of the dishes we had, along with these amazing nutty mushrooms.

After lunch, we took a ride around the canals of Ayuthaya. It wasn't a longboat like the sweet ride we had in Bangkok, but still fun to sight-see by boat, and we made a few stops at some of the wats. I won't even bother to name the wats, they are all over the place, and sometimes they overlap and all the signs are in Thai so it's hard to tell what's what (or wat's wat), suffice to say that there are a lot of fucking temples and statues of Buddha.

house of Buddhas

Enclosed Buddhas


Sleeping Buddha

Sleeping Buddha


Buddha head swallowed by tree

Buddha Entwined


bodyless Buddha

Bodyless Buddha

We found ourselves in a complex of wats that was being all wired with lights and discoballs and firework contraptions and foraging elephants.


We crossed over a bridge and there were all these food vendors and a stage with she-males performing. You can see what I'm talking about at the end of the above video. We wanted some food, but it appeared everyone was bartering for the food with some sort of magic beans that we weren't privy too. Eventually we found someone who spoke English and discovered you needed to buy these magic beans and rocks in order to get the food. We had no idea what we were eating most of the time, but it was usually surprising for the better. Sometimes it was sweet and gooey or starchy, but usually it was spicy and desirable to our palates. We also learned that all the lights and fireworks they were setting up were for a grand performance that was to take place in one of the nearby wats. So we stuck around for that. It was unbelievable. We had no idea what they were saying, but from what we could gather it was a sensationalized telling of the history of Thailand. It was quite the production of light and sound, and dueling elephants, etc. See for yourself.

History of Siam (Ayuthaya Light & Sound Show)


light and sound show performers

Ayuthaya Performers

The next morning we got back on the train. Again, not sure where we going. We chose Phitsanulok as our destination just because it was on the way to Chiang Mai and had a nice ring to it. On the train I had been reading Palm of the Hand Stories by Yasunari Kawabata. I've had the book for some time, I just haven't gotten around to reading it, and this trip seemed appropriate enough. Not that Kawabata is Thai or anything, but he is Buddhist, of the Japanese variety anyway. The stories were written between the 1920s and 1950s, but still hold water. I haven't read any other Kawabata, I guess he is more famous for his novels like Snow Country, but throughout his life he wrote these dreamy flash prose pieces, long before people called text objects prose poems or flash fictions.

A lot of the pieces are about fidelity or failed or strained marriages and the desire for something else other than what you have. They work in subtle ways, with the elegant maturity of Hemingway or Carver, but more surreal. If it's possible to be Zen about being surreal, Kawabata pulls it off. Like in "Lavatory Buddhahood" (1929). I also liked "Mother" (1926) and "Morning Nails" (1926). My favorite of all was "The Man Who Did Not Smile" (1929). Here's how it begins:

"The sky had turned a deep shade; it looked like the surface of a beautiful celadon porcelain piece. From my bed I gazed out on the Kamo river where the water was tinged with color of morning. For a week now, filming for the movie had continued through the middle of the night because the actor playing the lead role was scheduled to appear onstage in ten days. I was merely the author, so all I had to do was casually witness the filming."

Inspired by a daydream, he decides to rewrite the ending:

"This movie took place at a mental hospital. It pained me to see the wretched lives of the insane people we filmed every day. I had begun to think that I would feel hopeless unless I could somehow add a bright ending. I was afraid that I could not find a happy ending because my own personality was too gloomy."

So he goes on a mission to find masks for the actors that "were cute, but they could hardly be called artistic." Kawabata was sad core long before we called it sad core. He even checked out by his own hand. As I was writing this last sentence, Tao Lin emailed me asking me something or another about printers. Kawabata kind of writes like how Tao Lin might write if he lived 80 years ago and hadn't been jaded by hipsters in Brooklyn. I fell in and out of sleep on the train, half-reading Kawabata and half looking out the window.

Dreamy on Train

I've been on some trains on a few continents, watching landscape roll by, and I think I've come to a conclusion: most of the world is covered with nondescript foliage. At times it's dense, at times it's organized into crops and at times it's fodder, but after a while most plants starts to look the same. Here's some trackside foliage of the Thai variety:

Foliage Texture


train montage: Ayuthaya to Phitsanulok in slendro

We didn't have the same luck we had in Ayuthaya (stumbling upon wats and festivals and delicious food around every corner) when we got off the train in Phitsanulok. Maybe it's just about timing. For starters we couldn't even find a room, at least not one that looked habitable. They should spell Phitsanulok without the h, because it's the pits. Unless the H doubles for Hell Hole. And Lonely Planet had the nerve to say that it had more restaurants than any other place in Thailand. The people who write LP books should actually travel to the countries they write guides for. It helps. They are always way off and only tell you about the lame places where you'll find yourself surrounded by smelly backpackers trying to find cheap things for the sake of being cheap when it's really not that cheap. Granted the book we borrowed was 5 years old, but still, it was useless. You are better off using the guidebook for Phaic Tan.

After cruising around town by bicycle taxi unable to find a place to hang our hats, we decided to press on. Thing is, we couldn't get a train ticket til midnight. So we got our tickets then explored around the Phits more. We saw some stuff, but I renounced photography for the day. Photo-taking goes against the grain of Buddhism. Not that anyone minds—you can take a photo of someone taking a crap in Thailand and they'd likely pause to pose for you. Photography is a vain pursuit in the eyes of Buddha—trying to grasp something that isn't graspable. Trying to "take" something when there's nothing to take. That's the beauty of writing. Writer's don't need to grasp or steal anything tangible. They just observe and process. If they steal characters, they can change the names. You can't lie with photography. I take photos and videos mostly to jog my memory, for documentarian reasons. That's a lie. I'm addicted to "grasping." I used to never travel with a camera, but now I can't leave home without one. I don't have photos really of any trips I took in the 90s and I kind of regret it. Now I'm constantly having to delete photos and videos in my wake as I'm running around out of room on my hard drive. For what it's worth, here's a few more pics. I'm not even sure these are in Phitsanulok, after a while we were overloaded on watage. A wat is a wat is a wat.


3-wat umbrella



not sure wat this was, maybe a tarpaulin ceiling somewhere with singha emblazoned

Singha Tarp


monks on the move

Monks at Wat

We killed some more time around the Phits looking for food, eventually settling for grasshoppers and grubs. Everything tastes the same fried, especially when chased by Singha beer. Jess just posted some pictures of our culinary adventures on her urwhatueat site. There's a picture of me eating grasshoppers, but she erroneously says they are waterbugs. I admit I didn't have the nerve for the big juicy waterbugs, though I did try the smaller fried cockroaches. When they get to be the size of your palm, that's when you can probably taste guts and god knows what else, no matter how deep they are fried. Then we went down along the river to some bar where we had the spiciest tom yum I have ever had in my life, enough to kill any doubts about the grubs. All the locals were ordering whole bottles of whiskey, bottles of soda and buckets of ice. When in Siam do as the Siamese. Since we had time to kill yet, we found our way to another bar in an alley lined with hip theme bars, each blaring their own music to drown out the next, and ordered a bottle of Thai whiskey. What we got though was technically rum.

how they roll in Siam

Sang Som Thai Rum

Things quickly deteriorated from there. Jess got hit by a moped, then we got bombarded by mosquitoes at the train station. I think at one point Jess was crying and we were wondering if our train would ever come. It was sad core fun.

montage from our Sang Som fueled evening in Phitsanulok, complete with she-male boy in training



onward to Chiang Mai



(c) 2009 Derek White