It looks like a corpse, or the hollow shell remaining from one of the many crabs I have enjoyed while staying here in Bang Saen. I have the feeling that I am at a wake even though there are no flowers to be seen. The condo is totally cleaned and cleaned out as I sit reflecting on the last month in this wonderful seaside town. Yet, it does seem “lifeless,” stripped of all the personal things that signified my existence here. In the quiet of the condo as I look out over the sea where I saw so many colorful sunsets and approaching storms, my phone vibrates telling me that my ride is here to take me back to Bangkok for my final few days before returning to the US. It is time to put away the ghosts of visitors and times enjoyed, of things I can now only see with my mind, but not with my eyes.
I love Bang Saen. It is only about 30 minutes to my old Peace Corps site in Bang Boh, Samut Prakarn. I used to come here back then with some of the teachers to sit on the beach and just take in the day, much like people still do today. Although back then, the area was not as developed as it is now. However, it is still relatively small with a small-town feel. Unlike its much larger and more popular neighbor, Pattaya about 40 minutes to the south, Bang Saen is mostly a Thai destination to enjoy the beach on a hot August day. Any Westerners you meet are generally married to Thais from that area of the country.
I arrive on the first day of August, a Saturday, and just in time for the weekend market that sprawls over the commons located just outside the condominium where I am staying. The small peaked tents set up for the stalls are filled with all kinds of prepared Thai foods from seafood specialties of the area (crab cakes with a sweet sauce are my favorite) to the more traditional desserts. There are also vendors selling clothing, hardware, and household goods. The crowd is from all over the area, especially Bangkok, an easy 90-minute drive on one of the many highways that crisscross this part of the country. The perimeter is set up with tables, benches and small salas (open covered structures) with people enjoying the breeze and “picnicing” on food from the market or one of the many restaurants that line the commons.
Despite the bars that go on with loud, live music till midnight, this part of the town, known as Laemtan, is considered the quieter part of Bang Saen. It looks like it began life as a fishing village, but is now being taken over by condominium development and trendy restaurants that cater to the more well-healed from Bangkok. If you get up early enough, you can see the fishermen leaving for the day to work the shellfish hatcheries that dot the sea. Still others go further out to cast their nets for the fish they sell dockside or to the many restaurants in the area.
Leaving Laemtan is easy enough. You can walk to Bang Saen 2, a street that parallels the beach, and catch a 10 baht (28c US) minibus to the town center about 3 kilometers away. However, I usually opt to take the more pleasant walk along the promenade that runs along the beach itself. Here, you can recline in a beach chair covered with a canopy of umbrellas to protect you from the sun as you are served fabulous seafood from one of the many vendors nearby. Yes, life is good in Bang Saen!
In the town center, there is every kind of shop and restaurant you could need. There is even a small shopping mall with KFC, Dairy Queen ice cream and a small Western-style supermarket. The mall caters to the large Burapha University located across the street.
If you fancy more traditional Thai goods, you can continue on the minibus to the market at Nong Mon. This market was famous years ago as a goody-stop on the way southeast! I have many fond memories of the bus stopping here on a hot day, and getting iced coffee or Thai milk-tea in a plastic bag along with one of the many local foods. This market is particularly well known for “khao laam,” a sticky rice and coconut concoction that is steamed and presented in bamboo containers. You can choose from regular or dark sticky rice with black bean or banana. You always want one of each. The taste is out of this world!
What you can’t find in Bang Saen, you can easily travel by minibus to one of the nearby small cities of Chonburi (20 minutes and 20 baht- 75 cents) by the red minibus or Sriracha, famous for the hot sauce now gaining popularity in the US (25 minutes and 25 baht by the orange minibus).
The second Saturday I was there, I traveled to Bang Boh to have lunch with some of my former students and teachers from my Peace Corps days. We try to get as many people together every time I am here. Some people I haven’t seen in a while are there. So good to see them all. They are still the same core personalities as when they were kids. I’m getting a little “bothered” by the fact that some of them are now, or soon to be, grandparents! How could this have happened?!
Its hard to tell people what I did all day. I wanted to have as normal a life here as possible to see if this is a place where I might want to actually live eventually. I don’t think I was bored a minute. Fortunately, I love to walk, so about two hours a day would be doing that and wandering the back streets and market area. I always topped off the day of walking with a swim in the 7th floor pool that overlooks the sea. I spent nearly every day in that pool, surprisingly usually alone if my two Danish condo friends weren’t there to chat. Swimming there as the sun set was just the best part of the day. I always brought my camera as you could never know when a phenomenal sunset would occur!
For its size, there are some interesting and very different attractions here. A Chinese friend of mine from Beijing, David, visited for a few days with his friend, Christina. He had hired a car from Bangkok, so we were able to travel in style, with a driver no less, to Pattaya (I’ve written much on this place in past blogs) and also toured around Bang Saen itself. The first was Wang Saen Suk. There are life-size and larger plaster representations on what happens to people who do not follow the rules of karma. The scenes are very graphic, and if I were more of a believer, I suppose it would make me put down that second piece of cake for fear I would end up with a pig’s head and skewered! Buddhist hell, however, is more like Christian Pugatory, as with atonement comes the eventual reward of entry to heaven, which is also depicted. We decided to have lunch and relax at the beach. The driver and I watched the sea and chatted about Bang Saen. David and Christina were constantly on their cell phones calling or texting over business and never once even looked at the glories of nature that surrounded them. Over the next day, David learned to relax. He even wanted to stay at the beach and just listen to music! I did him the favor of taking his cell phone and iPad back to the condo with us as he spent the next 4 hours just vegetating! That is the magical way Bang Saen, and the sea in general, works on you. The waves slowly erode all resistance!
Our next stop was to Khao Sammuk (Sammuk Mountain– really a high hill) with its beautiful view of the town and the sea beyond. I was particularly glad we had the car for this part. Not because you have to climb the hill, but you avoid most of the 50 stray dogs and hundreds of monkeys that inhabit the site! The monkeys are cute and I get a number of photos, but you have to watch them. Anything shiny and they will take it and run— even your camera! People bring snacks for them, like bananas or long beans. But for me, it is the grand view that excites me the most.
We had planned to stay till sunset, but decided to go to the market area in the town of Angsila not far away. Angsila is a a great town. It really stretches along one main street all the way to the bay. There is a terrific Chinese shrine that graces the high point of the town. You then descend the hill and enter the port area of Angsila itself. This is where the fishermen leave for longer trips lasting several days. There is every conceivable type of seafood sold here. You can buy it raw or already prepared. The people, as always, are friendly. We discover that the driver is actually Mon, a Burmese group that settled in the lower waterways of Thailand. Many of the fishermen are also Mon, so we get to chat with them and finally enjoy the beginnings of the sunset as the rays intensify and give a rich hue to the colorful boats. Angsila is also noted for its stonework, and there are many shops selling mortars and pestles and figurines of many types. We managed to get to a seaside restaurant just in time to see the sun take it’s final dip in the sea. We enjoy the evening over crabs, shrimp cakes and stir fried vegetables.
One day, I got a call from one of my friends in Chieng Mai wondering where I was. There had been a bombing at the Erawan shrine, so revered in Thailand and always loaded with lots of Thais and tourists alike. The death toll reached 20 people with 120 injured. As of now, the chief suspect is a radical group of Uighurs who are suspected of giving “pay back” to the Thai government for deporting Uighur refugees back to China, where they are being persecuted by the Chinese government. And it seems the beat goes on around the world…….. I had been in Bangkok visiting with an Indonesian friend of mine who was up for the weekend with work friends. I had walked past that spot not 5 hours before the blast. Just goes to show you, when your time is up, it’s up. Anything can happen at any time, be vigilant but don’t let it stop you from doing what you are doing. I passed by there the other day and noticed that the small shrine itself has been curtained off as it probably sustained some damage. The devotees were still there, just not as many as there usually should be.
A few days later, I returned to Angsila to visit the Chinese shrine. It is really magnificent and a nice place to just relax during the hot point of the day. I ended up walking the entire length of the main street of the town (about 5 kilometers, maybe more). I measured it in Thai iced teas as I made my way to eventually hopping on the dark blue minivan that plies the road from Bang Saen to Chonburi through Angsila. I have a good friend who lives here in one of the back streets with a nice view of the mountains that rim the area. I’m glad that I was invited to lunch as the mosquitoes are plentiful and aggressive at night! The next evening he took me to a famous hole-in-the-wall restaurant for rice soup and fish. The place is only opened from 5 to 8 PM each day. You are entertained there by the monkeys who alternately screech in the trees or pound on the tin roof of the restaurant. Yeah, lots of fun!
I love Bang Saen with its slower Thai pace, but offers all the basics of life you could really need, even the Topps Supermarket at the mall! Although I think I’d have to teach a few hours a week to keep busier. There are language and public schools in the town as well as the University, which also has a good hospital and fun aquarium to visit.
Life could be good here, but you always feel the tug of home and the familiar. I may eventually live half time here and half time in the States for the best of both worlds. I don’t know, I can’t say. But I’m so glad there is always this option!
“Just being there is not participating. Just existing is not living.”