Beginning in Bangkok
The first stop in our three-week trek through Thailand was the capital city of Bangkok. I must admit, I ventured to Bangkok with a bit of a preconceived notion about the place. All the movies I had seen portrayed Bangkok as a bit of a shadier place, perfect for partying hard and generally raising hell, where almost anything goes. I was a bit tentative about it, seeing as I was no longer a 21-year-old always on the hunt for my next buzz. I was in for quite a surprise…
What We Did
Day 188 (1/26/17): We left Taipei early and boarded a flight for Thailand’s capital city. We were looking forward to be being joined by Katie’s cousin Kyle later that day. He hadn’t been seen since he began teaching English in Vietnam in July. We arrived at our hostel, D Hostel, not far from the infamous Khai San Road, known for big parties and lots of backpackers. We went to 7/11, got some snacks and played euchre in the lobby until Kyle arrived. Once he was settled in, we went out to get some more food and a couple of beers. We went to a place called Susie Wong’s, which specialized in barbeque pork sandwiches (called buns there). After stuffing ourselves on buns and pad Thai from the street vendors, we found a place along the road to post up and get more beers, watching the throngs of tourists mill past and catching up. We purchased some handmade bracelets from a woman passing by, whose samples included very offensive phrases including “I heart ass salad” and several I do not feel comfortable writing down. We wandered the streets a bit getting more beer and street food before heading back to the hostel for the night.
Day 189 (1/27/17): We got up somewhat early, determined to get to the Grand Palace right when they opened. Today was to be our touristy day in Bangkok, so we were anxious to cram as many sites as we could into the day. After a snafu with our passports that delayed our entry to the Grand Palace, we finally arrived outside the gates. We were there just 30 minutes after the complex opened, and there were already masses upon masses of people there. So, we squeezed into line for entry with some tour groups, got our tickets, and filed into the palace. Upon entry, I understood exactly why this place was so packed. It was absolutely stunning, with giant gold and bejeweled buildings as far as the eye could see. We wandered around, gawking at the intricate tiling, carvings and craftsmanship of the temples, shrines, and statues. We saw the outer court, Phra Maha Monthian Group, Chakri Group, Emerald Buddha, a museum dedicated to their recently departed king’ s accomplishments and royal residences. Afterwards, we made our way back into the street with our sights on Wat Arun. We bought boat tickets for 8 baht (about 15 cents) to cross the river to it and wandered around the grounds and smaller temples surrounding it. We opted not to pay to go in to see the main temple since it was completely covered in scaffolding, but spent some time relaxing in the park before taking the boat back. We picked up some fresh fruit on our way to our final destination, the Reclining Buddha. We spent a long time in this complex, as it was deceptively large and seemed to just keep going, a maze of ornate temples, jewel-studded shrines, and beautifully tiled pagodas. Once we finally made it out, we returned to our hostel to rest up a bit, tired from all our walking. That evening we went back out into the main tourist district, looking to see how crazy it would get and to absorb some of the energy. We stayed out, got some more beer, ate some street food, and got lost in the crowd. It was a chaotic atmosphere, with bars dueling to see who could play the loudest music and attract the biggest crowds, vendors pedaling everything from nitrous oxide and buckets of vodka to grilled insects and sex shows all while crowds of revelers spilled out into the streets, filling them from side to side and dancing with the beat of whatever song they could hear the most clearly. It was madness. After we had had our fill, we returned to the hostel and fell asleep.
Day 190 (1/28/17): After sleeping in a bit, we decided today we were simply going to wander, and try and see a different, more real side of Bangkok. We set out ultimate destination as Lumpini Park, about an hour walk from our hostel. We meandered through the streets, stopping and veering off course when we saw a market or shop that caught our eye. When we finally got close to the park, we stopped at 7/11 again to get some food for the park, thinking that it was going to be just a park with pretty scenery. However, once we arrived, we discovered the park was playing host to the 2017 Thailand Tourism Festival. Having just walked a fairly long distance, we decided to lay out underneath some trees by the pond and relax before we investigated the festivities further. Once we had regained some of our strength, we started into the festival grounds. The park was separated into five areas representing the five regions of Thailand (north, northeast, south, east, and central), complete with cultural dress, crafts, dancing, and cuisine. We saw the northeast, north, and south. After just those three we had stuffed ourselves with delicious food, visited the stalls and displays of several native tribes, and seen three performances of traditional Thai dancing. With the temperature continuing to climb and the crowd growing, we opted to take an Uber back to our hostel to shower. After freshening up, we are and headed out to the JJ Green Night Market. Although Bangkok has several night markets, some even bigger or more popular, we picked JJ Green because we had heard it had to most laid-back vibe and vintage offerings. Given the huge crowd there, we decided to split up, Adam and I in one group and Katie, Justin and Kyle in the other. We explored the various food stands, individual shops lining to large lot selling vintage home goods, and rows of hundreds of vendors selling everything from stickers and phone cases to shoes and watches (Adam’ s favorite – he bought two of them). We made our way into the back of the market which had more buildings, most which contained small restaurants and bars smelling deliciously of grilled meat. When we were sufficiently exhausted, we met up and returned to the hostel to pack. Tomorrow we were headed south…
What We Learned
- The most important thing I learned during our time in Thailand’s capital is that Bangkok is a city with many, many faces. While Bangkok did love up to its lovely party reputation, it was so much more than that. There is definitely a large tourist presence, especially by Khai San Road, and with that comes some degree of illusion as far as a city’s identity. But we enjoyed that part all the same, the same way someone back home may enjoy Law Vegas; it is a great time for a couple days, then it gets to be kind of wearing. But have no fear Bangkok also offers a plethora of historical sites for you more cultural or curious travelers. The Grand Palace is a site to behold. It looks like something out a storybook and is incredibly embellished, but without feeling too gaudy. It’s the holiest site in Thailand, and therefore attracts both foreign and domestic visitors. The Reclining Buddha is also worth a visit and a good reflection of Thai holy sites. One can spend a long time exploring the whole complex, not just the enormous Buddha. There is also a bustling downtown business district that we saw on our walk to Lumpini Park. So, I was surprised by Bangkok’s variety. And while we did see some less appealing things, like two homeless men in a fist fight, polluted waterways, and signs of a seedy yet flourishing sex industry, we were surprised and delighted by its culture, dedication to king and family, delicious food, friendly people and mix of modern and traditional offerings.
- Thailand is in mourning. The king of Thailand passed away in October as one of the longest reigning monarchs in history and he was beloved by his people. You will see his picture displayed everywhere. When we first left the airport, the taxi driver told us the road our hostel was on was closed to traffic. When we asked why he replied “My king died.” Not “the king” or “our king” but “my king”. I found this to be a very touching sentiment, one which I saw reflected in the black dress of many people that will be worn for the next year, especially around religious sites, as a sign of their grief. To be respectful, until the next October, try and limit the wearing of bright colors if visiting the country (even though we were told it is not expected of foreigners, especially in the south).
- Bananas in Thailand are the best I have ever had. They taste slightly more acidic than I am used to and this gives them a terrific depth of flavor that the one-noted sweet bananas back home do not have. I HIGHLY recommend them on a banana pancake, which is a typical street food they will make fresh fresh out of a cart for you. The dough is fried and the bananas are sliced and folded inside of it, getting warm and soft before the whole thing is covered in condensed milk, honey, chocolate, or whatever else you wish. YUM!!!
- Get to the Grand Palace when it opens, bring your passport, and make sure your legs and arms are covered. The crowds get insane very, very fast and it is important to be there early if you want a chance to get some pics without 3 million people taking selfies in the background. The security men at the gates will check your passport, bags and dress before allowing you in and if everything is not in order you may be denied entry. Believe me, we had to walk back and get our passports. Also, I recommend wearing shoes that slip on and off fairly easy the entire trip through Thailand as shoes cannot be worn in any temples or most homes or lodging. You will slip them on and off a lot.
- Singha is a much better beer than Chiang, but tends to be about 10 baht more expensive. Also, we found it a good idea to buy beer at 7/11 and then walk around in the street in the main tourist areas drinking it if you are looking to save money but still be in the chaos. This is fairly common, as the employees at the store have bottle openers and open the beers for you, sometimes without prompting.
- Our bartender have us some fried grasshoppers and larva to eat our first night in Bangkok. Really, they taste a lot like potato chips. As do the smaller scorpions. We tried some on the street and found them completely inoffensive tasting, so long as you don’t think about what you are eating or mind a leg hanging out of your mouth. I cannot recommend the larva or bigger scorpions as they seem juicier than what we had, but if you want to try it, go for it.
- Dancing on the streets of Bangkok with a crowd that massive was a memorable moment. Just being in that kind of chaos was amazing….for that evening. The people watching there is one of a kind, so if the dancing is not your thing, posting up at a bar and watching the madness is also a fun option.