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On the way to Wat Pho: Day 1 in Thailand

The store we stumbled on during our search for an umbrella turns out to be one of the most interesting places we’ve come across during our short time in Bangkok. Huge in relation to other shops nearby, this retro department store stocks everything from old musical instruments to hair rollers. Old posters, plastic furnitures, boxy women underwears.. it feels like I’ve stepped into a 1960s movie set. Despite it’s quirkiness and randomness, the two storeyed store is eerily empty of customers.  A staff in pink T-shirts firmly shake her head when I ask if I can take some photographs, so I make do with a discreet picture with my phone instead.

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By the time we finish looking around and step outside again, the rain had stopped. I buy my first Thai street food from the very first vendor that passes in front of me, which turns out to be sweetcorn ice cream. It tastes like cheap vanilla ice cream with a hint of nutty flavour, with bits of yellow sweet corns. The green bits, I cannot work out what they are.

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Sweetcorn ice cream in Bangkok

Wat Pho is one of the must-see places in Bangkok, but the street by its entrance gate is strangely quiet. Two Thai men are idly sitting under a tree shade, and when they see us approaching, one of them walk eagerly towards us with a big welcoming smile.

“Hello! Where are you guys from?”  He latches on with series of over-friendly questions. “Are you guys travelling? Where are you going now? Wat Pho?” Then he pulls out a tourist map from his back pocket in his jeans and starts talking and talking.

I can tell my friend is giving him only brief acknowledgements and trying to walk away, but I find it difficult to cut him off when he’s being so friendly. It feels too rude.

“Wat Pho is closed now. There’s a national ceremony happening today. Come back around 5pm”

Eh? The website said Wat Pho’s official closing time is 3pm.

“Instead you can go here, then see a temple there, and then go here.” He circles a few places on the map with his biro.

“Are you planning to walk there? Ah.. a little bit too far. Why don’t you take a tuk-tuk?”

Even before he finishes his sentence, a tuk-tuk conveniently pulls in next to us out of nowhere. Only then I manage to say no and walk away  while my friend makes fun of me being so receptive to such an obvious sham. “Textbook.” My friend tut tuts.

Later on the trip, we find a sign warning tourists not to fall for scammers that claims a major tourist attraction has closed early.

Day 1. 1 October 2015. Bangkok, Thailand

 

 

 

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Bangkok is pouring, pouring pouring: Day 1 in Thailand.

Fully exploiting the public holiday in Hong Kong, off I book a flight to Bangkok…only to find out it’s the rain season. But it doesn’t dampen our spirit. With two umbrellas packed, it won’t be much of a problem.

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The morning of the first day is cloudy but dry, and we take a taxi towards Wat Pho and find a fast food place for our brunch. It’s too late when we realise that we left our umbrellas back in the hotel by the time it starts pouring down with rain during our meal.

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We walk one way in rain, hoping there’d be a store selling umbrellas, but the street doesn’t seem to have such shops. So we walk back, remembering it was a bit busier than this one.

The rain doesn’t seem to be getting any lighter, so I take shelter under a small canopy of a street vendor while my friend goes into the market to find an umbrella.

10 minutes? 15 minutes? I don’t know how long I stood there waiting. Bound by the rain, I have nothing else to do but to people watch.

The locals seem to be used to this kind of weather. The sellers have swiftly and deftly covered their stalls with canvas sheets, and the motorbike riders are wearing baggy raincoats made out of thin plastic sheets.

The sky is grey, thick and heavy , but it doesn’t make Bangkok grim one little bit. It’s a city full of colours – taxis are fuchsia pink, tuk-tuks green, and buses orange and red.

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Eventually my friend returns, but with an empty hand. By now our hair’s wet and shoes are soggy.

“Should we just take a taxi to Wat Pho?” We discuss as we turn off the road from the corner I had been standing. And there it is, an entrance to a big retro department store. And yes, they sold umbrellas.

1 October 2015, Thailand

Tomb of Job, Joshua and Jethro

I am so, so proud of this small piece of paper that I prepared  before setting off to As-Salt. The name of the Biblical figures that are allegedly buried in the town are all written here in Arabic – the product of my pestering of the hostel manager and his of phone calls to find out the Arab-equivalent of the English names. It had been my sole means of communication/navigation in As-Salt where practically nobody could speak English.

I take out this carefully folded paper and show it to Auntie and her girls, and they grab passers-by and ask for me. They look and think for a while, and grab some other passers-by and show them the paper. This repeats for a while and soon a handful of men and women are hurdled together in a circle, heads bent down for a better view and fingers pointing towards the paper in the middle – the paper that is the  nucleus of their debates and exchange of ideas.

After 10 minutes or so, they spot a taxi and put me in the car.  I had imagined the tombs would be in the town, as obscurely located they may be  – but the taxi drives up and down a couple of hills and we are soon out of As-Salt. There was no way I could have found these places by myself let alone reach there – they are all at least 15 minutes away from each other by a car and most of them are kept in mosques hidden away from the general public.

Yes, they were in mosques. Not tombstones in a graveyard in an open field, but Muslim mosques. Apparently, Joshua and Jethro are considered as holy prophets in Islam, but I had not known that. I stand at the gate of the first  mosque we reach, blushing at my inappropriate attire revealing my bare arms and calf. Thankfully, the taxi driver fetches me two pieces of women’s garment from inside and gestures me to put them on. They are simple cotton with flower patterns all over,  with elastic band around its hem so that they can fit on the waist or  around the face.

I am entering a mosque for the first time in my life, wrapped around in these makeshift covers. The elastic band pulls the fabric and makes them puffy, and I feel like a decorated potato sack. Covering my entire body  immediately affects my posture, making me walk more discretely and quietly. It’s interesting how a simple covering can shift how I feel about myself and how I interact with the surroundings. Each tombs are a couple of metres long, covered with decorative cloaks. There’s always someone praying at the holy shrine, or a preacher teaching to a group of people.

On our way to each mosques, we talk with gestures. Simple words accompany the hand signs but they do not add much significance to our communication as neither of us hardly speak a word of each other’s language. Naturally, it takes on average of 10 minutes to understand the meaning of a single sentence.

Driver: Ayyub, Yusha, Shuayb – Muslim. (Job, Joshua, Jethro are Muslim prophets)

Me: You, Muslim. I, Christian.

The driver looks puzzled at the word ‘Christian’ so I try again. 

Me: (With the gesture of praying) You, Allah. Me, Jesus.

Driver: Messihi.

Me: Messihi?

Driver: Me, Muslim. You Messihi.

Messihi. I instantly like the word which I understand it to mean ‘a Christian’. Perhaps it derives from the word Messiah (meaning ‘saviour’) and ‘Messihi’ feels like a word that beautifully summarises what we Christians are: the follower of our saviour.

After we have seen the tomb of Joshua (he succeeded the role of Moses and led the Israelites to the Promised Land in the Bible), the driver lets me drink water in the mosque which seems to be the spring water from the ground. I smile broadly and take another refreshing sip, as the he gaily tells me that I am drinking the very water Joshua have drunk.

Tomb of Job
Shrine of Joshua
A little girl waiting for her mother's prayers to finish
A little girl waiting for her mother’s prayers to finish

After we have seen all the tombs on the paper, the driver takes me to another tomb and tells me it’s not a Muslim tomb but a Messihi one, of a prophet called ‘Hazeer’. The tomb was hidden under ground, not in a mosque – the most humble one out of all other’s I’ve seen so far and my favourite. I asked him to write down the name of the prophet so I could google it later, but I still couldn’t not find any information on this prophet. If anyone has any information, do please let me know.

Tomb of Hazeer
Tomb of Hazeer
(Top) Message from Noora (Bottom) Tomb of Hazeer
(Top) Message from Noora
(Bottom) Tomb of Hazeer

DAY 4: 21 September 2013, As-Salt

As-Salt: ‘What’s your name?’

On the streets of the town of As-Salt, I come cross little children playing.

‘What’s your name?’ I ask.
‘Wat sure nem?’ says one of the boys.

‘Me, Su-Min. You?’ I try again, this time with hand gestures.
‘Mee soomin. Yoo?’ he repeats after me.

I laugh, and he laughs after me.

I turn to the back page of my travel book and carefully read out ‘shoo es mak?’, to which he replies ‘Mohammed’. ‘Shoo es mak? Shoo es mak?’ I ask this to all the children who have now gathered around me.

Unfortunately, my glee and pride at this conversational breakthrough doesn’t last long when Mohammed carries on asking me questions in Arabic, to all of which I have to read out ‘maa fa he met (I don’t understand)’.

DAY 4: Saturday, 21 Sept 2013. As-Salt

Hashemiyeh Street in Amman

“I give you five camels for marriage!’, jokes Abu Josef in Arabic which is swiftly translated by Uncle Sam.

Abu Josef owns a street stall selling antiques on  Hashemiyeh Street. While the majority of the shops on this street offer commercially manufactured souvenirs arranged in its categories, Abu Josef’s stall is cluttered with everything old everywhere. Plates, old cameras and pouches on the table; necklaces and beads hanging from the top; copper tea pots and cups laying on the ground.

I bought a defunct Iraqi dinar note with Saddam Hussein printed on it, got invited to have tea by Uncle Sam, so here I am sitting by Hashemiyeh Street listening to Abu Josef talk on and on.

“Five camels! No, no, ten camels for you!”

It’s been only five minutes since the unpleasant touch-ups at the fruit souq, but I’m already feeling light-hearted at this characterful old man. He is a small, thin man with a tight voice, and is quick to raise his voice  whenever Uncle Sam stumbles at his translations. Uncle Sam, in comparison, is a well built middle aged man with a soothing gentle voice. He has a calming presence and seems like a deep thoughtful person, so different from Abu Josef who chatters on with all sorts of flirtatious comments.

“If you give me five camels, I give you five babies! If ten camels, it’s ten babies!” At my banter Abu Josef comes back with, “A Jordanian/Korean baby will be beautiful! Korean eyes and Arab moustache! Arab moustache and Korean eyes! So beautiful!”

Just imagine that – a baby with tiny slit eyes with thick Arab moustache. God forbid.

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DAY 3: Friday, 20 Sept 2013. Hashemiyeh Street, Amman.

Fruit Market in Amman: “She thinks I want to f*** her”

I’ve been in Amman for three days already but haven’t been any parts of the capital city yet. So after a quick simple dinner (spicy pasta, 3JD) I set off exploring the Friday nightscape of Amman. The streets are filled with the excitement of a weekend night, and endless rows of cars and taxis honk in a steady rhythm in celebration.

Feeling I’ve been lacking in the intake of Vitamin C, I head for the fruit market, hoping to buy a bag full of fruits to snack on during my 4 hour long bus trip to Aqaba tomorrow. I stop by each stalls, but all the vendors refuse take payment from me, preferring to give me samples of each fruit instead – pear, lime, fig, honeyed date.. They are either too sweet, too sour, or too bland for my taste but I dutifully finish them all.  Before I know it, I am sitting on a barrel that one of the vendors have offered me, this time a quarter of pomegranate in my hand. The vendor who has invited me to sit next to him is an old man, and I feel like a girl receiving treats from her granddad every time he peels a different kind of fruit and places them in my hand.

It seems a young man with stubbles is the only one who can speak English, and he tells me anecdotes about each vendors – and he likes to use f word often.

“That guy over there, he used to have a Filipino wife. He likes to f*** Philippine girls” “F*** America. It’s a bad country. Syria is f***ing America, North Korea is f***ing America. It’s good”

He wants to take a picture with me, and as he sits next to me and pose at the camera, he puts his arm around my neck. His hand ‘happens’ to be placed over my chest, and he even dares to slightly cup his hand.  I stand up making some excuse about having to go back, and the old vendor puts his arm behind me as if to guide my way out protectively, but his hand is on my ass.

The young man offers to walk me back to the hostel and I say ‘it’s okay’, and he announces to everyone, ‘she doesn’t want me to come with her because she thinks I want to f*** her!’, as if telling a great joke. Everyone cheerily laughs and I laugh along with them, but I’m actually in a sour mood. I walk away with an unfinished pomegranate in my hand, with my back turned towards the old vendor who has cheekily asked if I could give him a kiss goodbye on his lips.

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‘Where are you from?’ – It’s how all the conversations begin here in Jordan. Usually followed up with something like, ‘Ah! Korea! Korea good! Samsung good!’ or ‘Are you married? Have a boyfriend?’. It’s a question of which the content of the answer has no significance at all. I might as well be a Venezuelan or a Congolese and the conversation would still have gone in the same direction –  apart from today.

I walk through the Colonnaded Street to come out of the ruins of Jerash with mixed emotions. Flustered, angry, guilty, upset and very hungry. Not having the energy to browse for the shops that offers the cheapest lunch, I walk into a spacious restaurant I see in front of me. Let them rip me off if they will.  When order a sandwich to take away (priced at 3 JD, which is roughly about £3), and the man who took my order asks me the question. ‘Ah!’ A light sparks in his eyes and says something hurriedly to a boy next to him. The boy runs off somewhere and soon comes back with a young Jordanian man.a

‘안녕하세요, 저는 한국말 공부합니다 (Hello, I am studying Korean)’, slowly but flawlessly he speaks to me.  A big smile floods my face and I become animated, bombarding him with questions after questions. Where does he learn Korean? Why? How long?

The restaurant is a family run business and he was one of the owner’s nephew, and I am suddenly treated like their family friend.

‘Come inside! Come! Come!’ I am ushered into a room inside the restaurant, and takes only 1 JD for the sandwich I ordered. I tell him I want to buy a bottle of water, and he gives it to me for free. Another man in the restaurant gives me a CD that has photos of key sites in Jordan as a present and a bottle of coke is on the house.

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‘How can I get to Ajloun and Mar Elias?’ It is Friday so I have to rule out public transport. The man at the restaurant makes a couple of calls, asks around people around him and eventually leads me to a table at the back of the restaurant an Asian man and his Jordanian driver are having lunch. ‘They are going back to Amman today so maybe you guys could travel together and share the costs’.

This is how I met Masato, a very easy going, mischievous Japanese man who also happen to speak Korean fluently. We are soon listing Korean/Japanese music bands and TV programmes we both know, and bam! We’re now friends travelling together. He was happy to visit  the Ajloun castle and even come along to the Mar Elias, which is a site visited by Christians and Muslims.

We fill the rest of the afternoon being typical Asians – clicking away with our DSLRs, triumphantly holding out our ‘V’s with our fingers at each photos, and of course, singing PSY’s Gangnam Style in the car.

DAY 3: Jerash/Ajloun/Mar Elias, Friday 20 Sept 2013

Bethany Beyond Jordan

View of the promised land seen from Mt. Nebo

We had to drive up and down a small mountain to get to Bethany-Beyond-Jordan from Mt. Nebo. It was all desert, without much to see but rocks, sand, and more rocks. I never knew barren land could be so beautiful, and the experience was made much more surreal when the taxi driver played PSY’s Gangnam style from his MP3 Player. What a strange juxtaposition.

We got to the Bethany-Beyond-Jordan, only to find it closed 7 minutes ago.  Apparently you would have to take a shuttle bus for 10 minutes from the ticket office, and need a guide accompanying you in the site. Unfortunately all the drivers have now gone home – the ticket officer tells me.

The taxi driver steps in and has a slightly heated conversation with the ticket officer in Arabic. The only words I can understand is ‘Korea! Korea!’. I guess he’s telling him that I’m all the way from Korea. I actually live in the UK but keep my mouth shut.

Finally the ticket officer gives in and makes a phone call to make a special arrangement with the security soldiers to let our taxi into the site (security is tight near the Bethany Beyond Jordan because it is right next to the border with Israel), and a tall man comes with us to show me around the site.  I smile and thank him for his time, but he just walks past me without making any eye contact. At  that time I thought he was angry at me for the trouble I caused, but now I think he was being a little shy.

I was expecting the site to be a small shrine near the River Jordan, taking about 10 minutes to have a look. It turns it is quite a trek, following a little foot path amidst dried up trees and grass. The guide doesn’t speak much English so our conversations were made up of short simple words. ‘Church, Catholic’. He points to one church. ‘Church, Orthodox’. He points to another church.

The site has a number of significant places such as Tell Elias (where Elijah is said to have ascended to heaven) and a hermit cave, but they all seem to be closed and I couldn’t ask him to take me to those places, as I was feeling already too bad for taking up his time.  The actual baptism site is also made up of several ruins, and my Lonely Planet book wasn’t very clear which ruin was which. It was slightly disappointing that I only get a brief glimpse of the place that holds such a personal significance, but at the same time I was grateful that I got to have a look at the site at all.

The guide teaches me a few Arabic words, and that’s what we keep on saying throughout our 45 minute walk around the site.

‘Yallah (Come)’. ‘Tamam! (Good!)’. ‘Shukran (Thank you)’.

After the tour, we get into our taxi to come back to where the information centre is. The taxi guide gets out the car with a brief goodbye, without even hinting for a tip. I hurriedly follow after him and shake his hand with a very sincere ‘Shukran’.

DAY 2: Thursday, 19 Sept 2013

Conversations in Madaba: “If I was much younger, I do you”

Today’s plan was rather an ambitious one, covering Madaba, Mt. Nebo and Bethany-Beyond-Jordan, all of which an hour’s distance away from each other. The public transport only operates between Amman and Madaba, so I was expecting to spend a hefty amount of my budget on taxis.

The first stop was Madaba, famous for it’s Byzantine mosaics. It felt a bit too small to be called a city, but still had the energy and vibrancy that I much preferred than the hectic Amman. The town of Madaba was once a Moabite border city, mentioned in the Bible in Numbers 21:30 and Joshua 13:9. It also has the largest Christian community in Jordan, and I could see many women walking on the streets without wearing a headscarf.

I decided to follow the walking tour of the town suggested in my Lonely Planet travel book which should last about  3 hours, which would give me plenty of time to visit other biblical sites near Madaba.

 

After making a brief stop to watch a sand bottle being made, I started walking along what is known as the Tourist Street, filled with souvenir shops for tourists. Every single shop I pass by, the shop keepers tried to lure me into their shops, all of which I politely refused and walked on…until I reached a spacious shop called ‘Peace’ which seemed to deal with more high-end products. A man came out and greeted me with a big friendly smile, and to my surprise, a couple of young men nearby greeted me in Korean! He invited me for Bedouin tea and I could not refuse it.

His name was Menwer, and he used to work at the airport in catering. The shop he was working now was owned by his nephew.

It must have been a low-season for Madaba at this time of the year, as there were hardly any tourists in the town, which meant I could ask him as many questions about Jordan as I liked without having to worry about me disrupting his business.

Menwer at the 'Peace' shop

Conversing with someone from different culture and language can be an amusing experience, with interesting metaphors and unusual figures of speech.

“Are you married?”, he asks me.

“No.”

“Do you have a boyfriend?”

“No.”

“Oh! Why not marry?? If I was much, much younger, I do you!”

 

I ask him around what age Jordanian girls get married, and he answers that it’s around 20 to 23.

“It seems so young!” I say.

“Women are like apples. When they are young, when ripe, they are nice and delicious. When the time goes, not so good. You have to have them when they are good”, and he makes a ‘yuck’ face.

I scream at him jokingly and we both laugh, and do a high five.

 

Spending time with Menwer set me back against my schedule, so I hurried through my walking tour. All key sites were very small and not very time consuming, but I got lost a few times with my pretty much non-existent navigating skills.

There were many taxis on the main street of Madaba but I decided to go back to Menwer to arrange a taxi for me. I felt I could get a more trustworthy taxi fare if it was through him.  Next stop, Mt. Nebo.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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