Monday, May 19, 2008

Greater Bangkokland Area

So, the last post left off with the decision to come back to Thailand. And wouldn't you know it, I'm writing from Thailand! So I made it!

SE Asia is a cinch to get around for the tourist. The tourism infrastructure is well-oiled, and catching a bus from A to B requires no planning, no hassles, and virtually no money. I don't think I've paid more than $15 US for a bus -- even 10 hour overnight rides. So why is the well-worn road from Siem Reap to the Thai border in such unbelievably bad shape?

It's legendary, apparently. Word on the streets is that one or several airlines are bribing to government to indefinitely delay the road's upgrade. My one unplanned flight from Luang Prabang to Siem Reap was enough to strain my SE Asia budget (set me back $200, if you're curious), and honestly, the road wasn't that bad. So I paid my $11 and, 12 hours later, arrived in Bangkok.

Guang, this super-quiet Chinese Dutch kid, just kinda followed me home from the bus, so we shared a double to defray costs. He also kinda followed me to dinner (what was I gonna say, no, I'm eating alone?), and it was like a horrible date.

Anyway, as I've mentioned before, Bangkok isn't my cup of tea. But with only 4 days before the plane leaves, where can I do a quick jaunt?

Ayuthaya, former capital of Thailand and Unesco world heritage site, is just two hours away by train. I seem to have a theme going.

Getting to the Bangkok train station at 7 in the morning, I leave the guesthouse and start walking to the road to catch a taxi.

"Hey mister, taxi!"
"No meter, 200 baht" (He doesn't even know where I'm heading yet!)
Another guy, "Where you go?"
"Hualomphong Station, meter only"
"100 baht"
Some lady tries to sell me juice.
"No thank you."
She holds my hand, "Come to my room."
"Tuk tuk!"

I finally get a metered cab (58 baht), but what a hassle. Some folks think it's neat -- so much life! -- but I don't like being targeted for scams and hookers at 7 in the morning, thank you.

Ayuthaya is quiet. I like that. Kinda ironic to write that right now, since this cafe is filled with rat-a-tat-TAT-TAT BOOOOOM crunch crunch BANG as all these Thai kids play whatever game they're playing. But generally, Ayuthaya is quiet and filled with historic wats and the ruins of ancient palaces, and at dusk, the sites really turn majestic.

These are the ruins of Thailand's old capital city. 600 years old.

I can't think of a good segue here, so this will have to suffice.

Buddhism permeates everything here, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a shop without a small shrine to Buddha. They're always stocked with offerings, like incense, tiny plates of food, tea. I liked this one, larger than most, with the offering of Fanta, complete with a straw:

Back to Ayuthaya's ruins, though (now there's a segue!). The highlight, surprise surprise, was a tree I found.

Is that cool or is that cool? The Buddha is a complete sitting Buddha from the 14th century, but all you can see anymore is, well, you just saw!

While winding town my tour of historic Ayuthaya, I ran into this Brazilian drink of water named Mariana, and we found dinner at some little pad run by a guy named Tony. Tony's a character. He's half-Thai half-Chinese, and speaks both fluently. His English is excellent, and he responded to Mariana in Portuguese once. The next day, I decided to go back to Tony's for dinner. Tony's there, singing along to Manu Chao in Spanish, while I'm practicing my pathetic French with Sebastian, a Frenchman (of course). Tony joins our conversation, in French.

He speaks 10 languages (2 fluently, 2 well, and 6 passably). And you know what else he's into? Puzzles and games. Here's how it goes down.

Out of his pocket, he pulls a handful of bottlecaps, and lays 10 out in a row. A cap "moves" by jumping two adjacent caps and landing on the third. Once you have a double-up, you can't move that. Jumping a double-up is two jumps. You can't make a triple. The goal is to make 5 double-ups. Here's an example of a failed attempt:

- - - - - - - - - -
. - - = - - - - - -
. - - = = - - . - -

See, now the very left-most cap? It's marooned. It can't jump left (there's nothing there), and it can't jump right (one, two/three, but you have to jump exactly two). The second-to-left cap is also marooned.

So I got that one pretty quick, and Tony's on the ball with another puzzle. 9 caps, each with 1-9 written on it (one of each). Arrange them in a grid so that the 3 columns, the 3 rows, and the 2 diagonals all add up to 15.

No problem.

Tony's impressed, and from then on calls me MacGuyver (I don't really get it, either). Now, the last one he shows me is a game. He makes 3 piles of caps, one with 3 caps, one with 5, one with 7. Each turn, you take as many caps as you want from only one pile. Take the whole pile if you want. The person who takes the last cap loses. Tony suggests we put a beer on this one.

HA! Victim to one of the most classic blunders! The most famous is never get involved in a land war in Asia, but only slightly less well-known is this: Never challenge a game theorist* to Nim when beer is on the line! I go first. He goes. I go. He goes.

* - What I'm studying in grad school? Evolutionary game theory.

I can't believe this. Everyone who said theoretical math wasn't vocational, wasn't practical? Eat your heart out! I've studied this game. I had lectures on it. I've solved the general case! And here it is, in the real world, winning me a beer!

I go. He goes. It's my turn, and I'm looking at three piles, each with one cap left. Wait, wait, what?! Imagine my horror! Tony's all smiles. How could this be? The nim sum is 1. If I take a single cap (my only option), that brings it back to zero. Zero is a winning position, but... but... What went wrong? Math, oh math, why have you forsaken me?!

I bought Tony the beer. He earned it, and I'm happy to pay. But losing Nim? How? This is killing me. What went wrong? I can't sleep like this. I'm in my bed, and I can't sleep. Scratch paper, pencil. Alright, winning positions on the left, losing positions on the right. What went wrong?

When I finally figured it out, I couldn't believe myself. What an idgit. What a stooge. What an ultra-maroon. I was playing Nim strategy. In Nim, the person who takes the last cap wins. I was playing Nim strategy, in a game of Nim misere! Now I know this might not strike you as so inexcusable, but I promise you, it's inexcusable. I friggin' studied game theory. It's one of my things! Totally inexcusable.

But at least I figured out what happened. With that monkey off my back, I could sleep.

Speaking of monkeys (slam dunk!), ever heard of Lopburi? It may have been the capital after Ayuthaya (and before Thonburi, which merged with Bangkok), but that's not why I went there. I took a day trip to Lopburi because...

That's right: MONKEYS! LOTS of monkeys! Like, people-walk-around-with-bamboo-poles-and-slingshots lots of monkey! Wikitravel's page on Lopburi divides the places to sleep into "places with lots of monkeys" and "places with few monkeys." The Lopburi City Hotel is enclosed in a cage so you can open your windows. Wow.

This wat in particular had lots of monkeys:

The inside of the ruins is caged, to keep the monkeys out. So you can take refuge in there and say hi to the monkeys from safety. They seem to like cameras.

This baby monkey and I became friends. Awwwwwwww...

More fun was being outside. Most monkeys leave you alone, but some are interested in your stuff. Sorry I couldn't take photos of the monkeys on me, but when a monkey jumps on your back and makes for your camera, it's kinda hard to get a photo. The woes of being your own photographer! Luckily, this little guy was more interested in my key, and I managed to snap a single shot before I had to get defensive about my camera again:

Okay, it actually gets kinda tiring to be defensive all the time, and I'm actually kinda worried a monkey's gonna make off my camera. But I love them so! But they're gonna get my camera. But... MONKEYS! So I stay another while, but then back to Ayuthaya. I gotta get to Bangkok tonight.

In Ayuthaya, I show Tony that I got his 3,5,7 game down (Nim misere, damnit!), and then teach him a new one: Chomp. Tony wasn't very good at Chomp initially, so I think he got a little frustrated. That's okay. I know his type, and he's probably looking at a rectangle of bottlecaps right now, trying to figure the game out. I like that thought. He's a really good guy. Bye bye Tony!

The train leaves for Bangkok in half an hour, and tomorrow, to India! One of my first posts was me worrying about the heat in Delhi when I get there. No kidding!

Alright, one last lemon shake, one last goodbye to Tony, and then I gotta make like a banana.

Much love from the quite bearable heat of SE Asia. As always.


Anonymous said...

Jake--I need a picture of YOU!!

And who's Margaret?


Jake Cooper said...

Margaret Elizabeth Berry, loving mom of David Cameron Berry Jr. They don't do first names much, I guess.

And a picture of me? I don't know, I guess I don't really take photos of myself much. (1) It's a little tough to be your own photographer, and (2) Why? I came here to see other people, other places, other cultures! Think Marco Polo, not Hermann Hesse.

Joshua's the one who likes Hermann Hesse. Boooooring.

Anonymous said...

good writing---fun to read--monkeys and game threory---that's my Yanke!!

Joshua said...

Hey now, I journey inward and outward.

Joshua said...

And if you want to see someone who takes pics of himself, guess who grabbed the camera at the last Gambit party and took over 30! Not kidding. And no, that's not me.

DJ Wec Wec said...


You've got to stop moving around. How am I supposed to mail you that burrito if you travel so quickly. How hard do you think it is to get refried beans through Customs?