Thailand, Part 1: Bangkok

01/13/2013

This is one of a series of posts about our honeymoon to Thailand in December 2012, which consisted of Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Pai, Phuket, and a long layover in Tokyo. Scroll down to the bottom to see pictures, and click on any of them to see an enlarged version. This was tapped out on my iPad, so forgive any typos or sentence fragments.

12/14. Packed up the house, 845 flight to Chicago. 3 hour layover in Chicago. 15.5 hour flight to Hong Kong. Business class is awesome, they load you up with tons of food and alcohol so you pass out. Alex and indefinitely slept half the flight. Greeted with a glass of champagne.

Hour layover in Hong Kong, just enough time to go through security again.

2.5 hour flight to Bangkok, yay! Landed late at night. Got to hotels just before midnight 12/15, but  we had been sleeping for so long, we still had energy to walk along the street markets where we were staying (Shanghai Mansion). We were under the impression that its really easy to be a vegetarian, but not in Chinatown. Everything is some kind of seafood (shark fin soup everywhere). Thai people bend over backwards for you, but aren’t that personable in truth. Hotel is really cute, a little bare, but this is supposed to resemble Shanghai in the 30s and is one of the top rated hotels in the country, so we will just trust them!  This is one of the few Chinatowns in the world that hasn’t gentrified, and they are proud of it. The sights, the sounds, the open air stacks of mystery meat and seafood… The guide book calls it charming, but I would just call it a different world than what we’re used to with food safety protocols and health codes.

12/16 – our first full day in thailand. Woke up a bit later than usual, so missed the chance to go to one of the open air markets, which closes at 9. But we walked the mile or so to the subway, along Chinatown, which doesn’t smell any better during the day. Subway is nice and clean and easy to understand. We rode up to the Chatenchuk market, which is a giant sprawling market, filled with hundreds, maybe thousands, of little stalls. This looks like one of the main shopping areas, as beyond the typical tourist stuff of antiques and housewares, they sell clothing, dishes, tablecloths, and just about anything else you would need. Food was in abundance, all being cooked out in the open. We walked past dozens of stands selling, and cooking, every kind of meat, seafood, stew possible. Also lots of fresh fruit being cut by men with machetes, we got some watermelon. We finally risked it and got some fresh pad Thai in one of the open stands. While everything is advertised as being with pork, squid, oyster, shrimp, etc, they didn’t bat their eyes when we asked for tofu. It ended up being pretty good too! And, as we expected, dirt cheap. Our whole meal, including two sodas? Around $3 US. After walking around the market and picking up a few things for the condo (a couple lamps and candle set), we headed back to the hotel.

I had been told by many people that the one thing I HAD to do as a man is get a couple of tailored suits, as it’s dirt cheap compared to the US. While the guide book had recommendations, I was advised that I should just ask the front desk and they would know where to go. I told the front desk that I was looking to get a couple of suits, and 15 minutes later, a tailor picked me up in his car and took me through the sketchier parts of Chinatown to his shop, whiched was packed with loads of fabrics, style guides, and other westerners. I ended up getting two suits and a few shirts. Mistake: I didn’t ask for the price until the very end. Oops. While it was far cheaper than getting a custom suit in the US, or even a off the shelf suit of similar material, it was a lot more expensive than what I thought I would be paying.

At 6 PM, we boarded the Loy Nava rice barge, which has been converted into a restaurant. Wait, rewind. We took our first tuk-tuk (a combination between a golf cart and a motorcycle, usually driven by someone who has no respect for rules of the road, other cars, or life itself) over to the pier. As terrifying as it was, it was a new experience, and got us across the city for $1.50. They had a great vegetarian menu for us, which we enjoyed as the barge slowly churned up the river, with the waiters occasionally pointing out things in broken English. Everyone we’ve encountered so far in thailand speeks “good enough” English that we can communicate what we need. The rice barge docked at 8 PM, but by then jet lag caught up with us, so we took a cab back to the hotel and quickly passed out.

12/17 – Tourist day. We set aside today to visit the major temples of Bangkok. Having already missed our opportunity to go to northern bangkok for one of the major markets (Nonthaburi) which closes by 8 AM, we headed to the central pier. The best way to traverse the city’s major points is by boat, not just for tourism, but for general transportation as well. I’ll spare the details as they’re all online, but we visited    Wat Pho, Wat Arun, the Grand Palace complex.

Guidebooks, previous visitors, and the hotel instilled one thing in us: don’t trust anyone. It’s disappointing, but our entire time in bangkok, we had to have our guard up. The tuk-tuk drivers, they’ll either overcharge you or drop you off at some random place that gives them a kickback. The people offering to help you? They’ll give you bad information to send you to some tourist trap. The people standing outside some major monument, telling you it’s closed? They’ll happily browbeat you into getting into a waiting car to drag you to some shop. We almost got had once, and learned to just walk past and not even acknowledge anyone who approaches you. Everyone, including the police, just accept it as part of the experience here. However, we never felt “unsafe” or concerned about being robbed, so all we had to do was just walk past anyone who approached us the entire trip.

After getting our fill of temples (we sense a theme in our trips here, comparing the yet-another-cathedral  attitude in Spain to the not-another-wat feeling here), we headed up to Khao San Road. Khao San Road is the backpacker/hippie paradise filled with bars, open air massage parlors, street vendors, tattoo shops, and lots and lots of people who look, in general, disconnected from what we consider normal societal fabric. Th. Khao San makes Adams Morgan, Bourbon Street, and their kin look like Disneyland. We stopped at Shoshana, an Israeli restaurant, for lunch. While we have only been in Thailand for a couple days, having a really good falafel and fries was a welcome respite. Meal cost: $5.

After walking around Khao San enough to vow never needing to return again, we hopped a boat back to Chinatown. Instead of taking the tourist boat, we opted to take the normal commuter boat, where they pack people in tighter than a DC metro car (I had to pull Alex out from the crowd as the boat was pulling away). We walked through Chinatown back to our hotel, where the tailor picked me up for my first fitting (never had clothes fit so perfectly). While we intended to take a quick nap before heading out to dinner, we both slept until 930 or 10. Oh well. Gave up, and passed out again. After a particularly rough few months, and an intense three weeks prior to boarding our flights, our bodies needed a recharge on sleep.

12/18 – we booked a trip on viator (wait, you’re traveling to another country and you haven’t checked out viator yet???) to ayuthaya. The driver picked us up at 7 am and slogged through the horrific bangkok traffic (worst I’ve ever seen) and took us to the main bus. Compared to the previous two days which were self planned and executed, it was nice to have everything done for us, from pick up at our hotel, to lunch, to the trip and guidance itself. Our tour guide, Krit, spoke clear English and gave us some Greg insights about the places we were visiting, but also what we saw along the road and Thai culture overall.

Driving to Ayuthaya, we had the chance to see and learn more about Thailand than the lonely planet guide volunteered.

  • We knew that Thailand is a Buddhist country, but we didn’t realize that it’s 95% Buddhist. Christians and Muslims make up the remaining. You find religious symbols everywhere. Every taxi  dashboard has a mini shrine, the hotel leaves out food for monks, and you’ll find spirit houses (bird-house-like shrines meant to ward off evil spirits from the residents) in the northeast corner of every house, office building, and car dealership.
  • There are 40,000 Wats (temples) in Thailand. If you’re wealthy, you build a Wat, in part to secure a place in the afterlife. All of them incredibly beautiful and ornate, but so dense along major thoroughfares that you barely notice them after some time.
  • While the king is purely symbolic nowadays similar to British monarchy, people LOVE the king. Our guidebook gave us practical tips (don’t insult the king, don’t step on money which has the king  on it), we were amazed by the amount of love and affection the king receives. Pictures of him line the road. Houses and buildings have giant posters of him (occasionally with wife and family) on public display, and billboards everywhere, privately sponsored, profess their love for him. Wherever you see a Thai flag, you’ll more than likely see a yellow flag, representing the color of the day of the week he was born on (the queen is blue).
  • While Thailand is a well established and westernized country, there are evidences of the downside of globalization or overreaching in the economy. There are numerous failed major construction projects. There’s 30km of concrete bridge supports for a highway that was never built. There are numerous unfinished skyscrapers, skeletons left behind by failed construction projects. And overall, infrastructure that can’t support the massive number of people and vehicles present.
  • Thailand had never been conquered or colonized by another country, compared to all of its neighbors. Hence being renamed from Siam to Thailand (land of the free) in the 20th century.

Our first stop was Bang Pa In Palace, the kings original palace. Beyond being beatiful (and a welcome break from the overwhelming smell of Bangkok), it was interesting to see how much surrounding culture was absorbed or brought over, from a Chinese themed house to Italian statues to British lamp posts. It was surprising that in this palace complex we saw very little in the way of Thai culture.

Next we headed to Wat Phra Mahathat, famous ruins. This is what we thought we would be seeing more of, given pictures from previous visitors.

Next we visited Wat Na Phra Meru, another Wat. Ok, we’re getting a little fed up with temples by now, right on schedule.

Our final stop was at Wat Ya Chai Mongkorn, another ruins, with a large reclining Buddha. We learned of the fixed number of positions of Buddha, and what the major ones represented. This reclining Buddha, similar to the one in Bangkok, had one foot on top of the other, representing Buddha passing into Nirvana.

We then took the bus to Pathum Thani (I believe), where we got on a cruise ship on the Chao Phraya. We had lunch on the boat, which then took us downriver back to Bangkok. It gave us a chance to check out life along the river, which, like many countries, was and still is the main artery, as well as one of the more common places to live.

We then headed back to the hotel, where, after I got my second and final fitting for my suits, we washed up and headed out to dinner. We had dinner at Hemlock, a nice Thai restaurant just off Khao San Road. We’ll be happy to never go near Khao San Road again.

12/19 – we booked another trip on viator that was going to take us to one of the floating markets.

Viator tip: if it won’t let you book one or two days in advance of the excursion, book for the next available day. The voucher you will receive has the number of the tour operator, and you can call them to change the day. Worked for us.

We visited a coconut stand, a teak carving center, and then the damnoen saduat floating market. The floating market was fun, as we boarded long tail boats (little boats with exposed engines at the back, definitely not OK in the US) and sped through the waterways to the market. Alex and I compared this journey to a Disney ride, as the narrow waterway resembled something you’d find at an amusement park. Once we got to the market, we boarded paddleboats that took us through the market.

This trip was both a great experience and a bit of a bummer. The coconut stand and teak farms were obvious tourist traps, meant for large busses to park, give them a bit of a culture, then spend 30 minutes perusing the large stores, filled with both handicrafts and the usual tourist garbage you find at every other shop. The floating market was the same thing, where, at least during the week, every vendor is selling the exact same trash. But we walked away with having seen a floating market, seeing canal culture, knowing more about coconut processing, and watching teak carvers at work.

We returned back to smelly Bangkok, and headed to the Jim Thompson house. Jim Thompson was an American responsible for introducing Thai silk to the rest of the world. His house is a combination of Thai architecture and construction with Western housing layouts. After his mysterious disappearance, his house was turned into an art museum. Alex particularly loved this museum.

We then headed back to the hotel, cleaned up, and went to the Mandarin Oriental, one of the most beautiful hotels in the world, for drinks and dinner on the bank of the Chao Phraya.