Thursday, March 26, 2009

our new apartment

We love, love, love our apartment. After moving in a week ago and spending the last six days cleaning and outfitting the place, it finally feels like home.

The neighbourhood is focused on the main arterial road, colloquially called Ekkamai, officially called Sukhumvit 63. If you want our proper address or new phone #s, let us know. It’s a very mixed area, with everything from abject poverty to extreme wealth (I’m talking diseased homelessness and Ferraris here). These contrasts, combined with the astounding traffic, bustle, and fumes make it rather overwhelming. It’s got a lot going for it, though, notably being right where I work (I have a five minute walking commute), as well as having accessible affordable food and household goods stores, and access to the main city public transportation.

The layout of our place is reminiscent of an American motor-inn, with walled and gated grounds, parking on the ground floor of the building, balconies facing in to the central pool (!!) and courtyard, and four different shared stairwells. It’s an older building, maybe from around the 1940s or so, but we could be wildly wrong in that guess.

Our apartment is way bigger than we need, with two bedrooms, a huge dining/living room, a study, a kitchen, two bathrooms, six to eight closets depending on how you count, and a balcony. Our money, little though it is by our standards, goes an awfully long way here. And this place is quite a find, even given our price range. Quite a change from last year’s shoebox: Erika and I are having to adjust to being in different rooms from one another. And what rooms! There are dark, polished hardwood floors throughout, with dark woodwork framing and built-in cabinets, all around thick white plaster walls. Each room has copious large, nicely-proportioned wood-framed windows with views of the gardens next door and/or sliding doors to the balcony. At first glance the overall effect reminded me of Japanese minimalist architecture, but since being here I can see how it’s actually very Thai. Something in the proportions: like those great Thai wardrobes, they’re just proportioned in a very Thai way.

Our apartment is on the top floor and on the corner farthest from the street, so it’s quiet and gets a fresh breeze. Our neighbours are a mix of Thai and American/British people, heavier on the Thai than the white. It’s very much a family place, quiet and safe, with a few kids playing outside at almost all times. The kids largely favour the pool – did I mention we have a POOL?! A perfect pool?! It’s right at the bottom of our stairs, surrounded by a lovely lawn, with shading trees and decorative shrubbery and lounge chairs and sweet little tables and convenient umbrellas all around. Some of the shrubberies lend a romantic air to the pool by casting their pink petals down to float across the water in light breezes. The water itself is delightfully clean and not too salty or chlorinated, and is the perfect temperature without being heated (yes, it’s that hot here). It’s a great size for both playing in and swimming laps – not too big and not too small. The deep end is quite deep, allowing for a diving board and general jumping-in fun. There’s no closing or opening times, so we’ve availed ourselves of quite a few midnight swims, as well as swimming in the rain, during the midafternoon, and really at any and all available times. There is nothing quite so wonderful as swimming when you’re really hot and sweaty. Like right now, for example, or any other time that we are not a) in an air conditioned space, b) showering, or c) in the pool.

I love our apartment. But it is so nice that I feel embarrassed because it is more than we need and is so luxurious, even though it’s the same price per person as what my colleagues have. On the other hand, if I have to have a problem with my housing, it might as well be that it’s embarrassingly nice. Here’s to miraculously good real estate agents and dual incomes (see Erika’s forthcoming post about her new job)!

Photos both of our neighbourhood and our apartment:

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bangkok jungle

Yesterday I went to a neighbourhood in Bangkok that totally and completely redeems the entire rest of the overcrowded smelly urban city. It’s known as Bang Kra Jao by the locals, but you’ll not find it on any maps. On my most excellent and detailed of maps (link to Nancy Chandler’s map of Bangkok) it’s represented merely as a large greenish smudge, with text saying that only the most adventurous should venture here. Well, of course I went the first free day I had. How could I pass up the cartographic unknown?

As it turns out, there are two very good reasons why it doesn’t appear on maps. The first is that it would be nearly impossible to map, as it is an astoundingly complex maze of mud pathways and stilt houses built above a swamp that drastically floods and alters the landscape every year. There are a very few roads passable by cars, but most of what must be hundreds of miles of passageways are narrower than one of my arms is long, some notably so, and are usually built on stilts about 10 feet above the ground/water, and are shared by two-way bike, foot, peddler-cart, and dog traffic. It made for some hairy, though thrilling, biking. See the video which is hopefully embedded below for a good glimpse.

The second reason it remains undepicted is that the locals like their area the way it is, thank you very much, and don’t want developers and tourists “discovering” (i.e. ruining) their remarkably anachronistic neighbourhood. This is a refreshing sentiment in a country that, in its heartbeat city at least, seems happy to sell its grandmother to the highest bidder. Sometimes literally. (See forthcoming post on Petra’s work here.) And its commitment to steadfast ways of life goes back a long time, making this peninsular knob in the S-turn of the Chao Praya river a snapshot of what Bangkok must have been like hundreds of years ago, with tiny gilded temples and stilted homesteads with palmfrond roofs nestled in amongst dense but delicately cultivated jungle, complete with hooting parroty things, wild kimodo dragons and Siamese cats, and a traditional floating market, not a speck of it for show. All this just 2 miles from the arching skyscrapers of modern finance and the throngs of urban slums and jet-setting fashion malls.

It took about a half hour to bike/boat there from my house, and you can bet I’ll be going back often, hating cities as I do and relishing un-human surroundings. I have plans for a certain shack that serves drinks in the middle of the jungle, with only cicadas and sloshing water to hear, and its hammock in the shade… Maybe even tomorrow. :)

Where the jungle is and how to get there from our apartment:

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