Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Wat's the Story, Morning Glory

Wow. Bangkok. To try to capture a bit of the experience of our first massive Asian city (9+ million people), I’m going to make this post a little different. Sarah and I have selected our favourite photos from our first wild day in Bangkok, which are inserted throughout this post as a bit of a photo essay. The text of the post is my attempt to describe our transition from panic through unease and finally turning the corner to enjoyment of this sprawling metropolis. So, you can either just enjoy the pretty pictures, read the story, or do both in tandem. A choose your own adventure blog post.

So, the story. We flew for about 13 hours before we finally arrived in Bangkok around 6pm. The Bangkok airport is very new, lots of glass and concrete, and seems quite orderly, until you get to the customs area. A zoo of people cutting lines, pushing through, between and around you, and an extremely slow moving wait until you finally get stamped, photographed, and approved for your Thailand adventures.  All of this could have easily be solved with stanchions, but we quickly learned the Thai are not fond of staying within the lines.
By the time we got into the cab (there are thousands of cheap cabs in Bangkok), it was nearly dark and the hour ride into the city took us past eerie abandoned construction sites, massive billboards, roadside stands, and finally into the streets of Bangkok itself. The first thing that struck us about Bangkok is how much of life happens on the streets. Endless street vendors hawking everything from Buddha medallions to fresh (or not) food pack the sidewalks, mingled with plastic tables, chairs, lights, umbrellas, and people.

Our hotel (Boonsiri Place) was located a five minute walk from the main backpacker drag (Khao San Road) on a corner that seems to embody the experience of life in downtown Bangkok. There are, at minimum, two dozen people on our corner at all times, involved in a variety of different pursuits. At the time of our arrival, this was all under the glare of streetlights, but the same busyness was occurring as early as 6:30am on other days. At any given time, there are the couple of cabs that are parked in front of the hotel doors, their drivers leaning against the cabs, smoking and chatting. 
There are four separate vendors working out of what look like hotdog vendor carts but are actually wok-type devices on which they cook essentially whatever anyone would like. (Typically Thai restaraunts do not have menus, people just come in and order what they are feeling like.) Each vendor has at least a couple of plastic chairs and usually a friend or family member sitting with them. There are a number people just sitting on the curbs or sidewalks, watching the world go by or selling trinkets spread out on a blanket in front of them. There are tuk tuks zipping around the corners, which look like a cross between a motorized tricycle with a covered seat on
the back and a rider lawn mower. And then there was us, the only white people in a sea of Thai life, holding our backpacks and upon our arrival on that darkened street, feeling completely, utterly overwhelmed.
To be fair, it was nearly 2am Australian time, and we’d spent a very long day traveling with a backpack that smells vaguely of cat piss (a story for another day). We’d eaten enough and were tired enough that when we arrived at 8:30pm, we decided that braving the outside world could wait until the next morning. But when the next morning came (heralded by discordant music being played in the courtyard of the community college behind our window) we had our first moment of real dislocation on the trip. 
This was not a surprise, we’d talked a lot about how this trip would push our boundaries and make us uncomfortable at times, but regardless of how much we’d felt prepared for this, when it finally came, there really wasn’t much prep that would have helped. In truth, we were panicked about getting out the front door.
After a few half-hearted thoughts of heading back to the airport and leaving early for Bali, which I’m not proud to admit but mention now to emphasize our stressed mindset, we decided it was time for us to just suck it up and get out there. Armed with a heavily photocopied map of the surrounding area, a camera and a pocketful of bhat, we left the hotel and promptly headed in the wrong direction. And as tourists are apt to do, we whipped out our little map and consulted it. This, apparently, is a blatant tourist flag. A very polite gentleman came right up to us, welcomed us to Thailand, asked us where we were headed, and proceeded to draw all  over our map the locations of all of the Buddhas he thought were worth visiting (Reclining Buddha, Happy Buddha, Standing Buddha, etc).
After a moment, he gestured to the street and his “very good friend” came up who just happened to be a tuk-tuk driver and would happily show us around the city, including some very “special shopping opportunities” for just 40 bhat ($1.33). Recognizing the scam we’d read about in our guidebook, we politely declined and headed the other (correct) way towards the Grand Palace. It rattled me a bit to have so quickly encountered the scam we’d heard about and I worried this was going to happen over and over.
On the walk there, we walked by tiny storefront after storefront, each specializing in one type of good or another (guitars, surplus military wear, TVS, etc.). Each shop typically had just one store owner sitting on a wooden stool, waiting for the customers to arrive. In the 5 blocks to the Grand Palace, we walked by perhaps 30 storefronts, in which we saw zero customers. It was fairly early in the morning, but it still seemed remarkable to us that all the stores could keep up a business this way.
The Grand Palace is a massive complex formerly occupied by the royal Thai family, who built it in the late 1700s. It is a remarkable testament to Thai architecture, but also to the Buddhist faith. There are buildings with the architecture of other Buddhist nations (Cambodia and Sri Lanka), a 1km long painting depicting the battle between King Rama and an evil demon, and artefacts from the Buddha himself such as a lock of his hair, his original prayer book, and a statue of him. 

We made the very good call of hiring a guide to show us around, a very wonderful man named Geoffrey who worked as a guard in the palace 5 days a week and gave tours for the other two days. He was able to explain so much of what we were seeing, as well as give us some details about Thai politics, gender relations, and some tidbits about Thai pride in the King and the royal family’s car sponsorships (i.e., the Prince, this year, has been sponsored by BMW, who knows what car he’ll drive next year?). 
Being with a guide was a very grounding experience. We no longer felt like we had to sort it out for ourselves, but could relax a bit and listen to the interesting cadence of Geoffrey’s narrative and lovely English. 
 Afterwards, we look a walk along the riverfront (much of Bangkok life circles around the river) towards the two wats (temples) we hoped to see that day. We walked through a market with stalls of cooking food, trinkets, and clothes and just let the sounds, smells, and experience wash over us. I typically have a hard time in crowded spaces like this, but for some reason this seemed manageable and made me feel hopeful for the rest of the experience.
We strolled down by the water until we found a small park on the riverfront where we sat and took a few minutes to relax. We watched the longboats go zipping up and down the river, enjoyed the warmth of the sun and munched on some trail mix. 
A Thai family of father, mother, and angsty teenage daughter sat down next to us and after a few minutes offered us some of the fruit they were eating from a big paper bag. They did not speak more than a few words of English and our Thai basically consists of “thank you,” (Khao poon ka) so lots of hand gesturing was involved. We offered some of the trail mix but they grimaced a bit and declined. The fruit looked a lot like lychee, with tough shells to peel back and sweet, grapefruit-like fruit on the inside. I hesitated before eating, still a bit freaked out by the whole day and the cautions we’d heard about food in Thailand, but eventually just decided that being in the moment deserved a little leap of faith. 
For me, this small kindness from the family who clearly noted our unease, and my convincing myself to eat the fruit was a turning point in the day. It reminded me that despite the vast differences which felt overwhelming, there are, of course, some commonalities that bridge all the gaps.
We hopped on a quick and cheap (3 baht = $0.10) ferry across the river to Wat Arun, a beautiful temple where we were able to climb up and get a bird’s eye view of the river and city. The beauty of this smaller temple was more visceral for being able to climb into the temple and not view things from afar as with the Grand Palace. After a quick, delicious lunch on the river, we hopped over the river again to Wat Pho, home of the reclining Buddha. This very large wat has extensive, peaceful gardens which are a shocking contrast to the melee on the streets and did a lot to sooth our nerves. We walked the grounds for a good hour, taking in the many Buddha statues, before finally seeing the enormous reclining Buddha which is a centerpiece. A lot of the photos in this post are from Wat Arun and Wat Pho. 

Eventually, we ended the day with a tuk-tuk ride, one of the things you must do if you visit Bangkok. After a quick negotiation on price (driver – 200 baht, Steve – 30 baht, driver [laughs] – 100 baht, Steve [returning laughter] – 50 baht, driver – 60 baht, Steve – Done) we were flying through traffic back towards our place to wash up and get ready for dinner. (See tuk-tuk video below.) Arriving back at our hotel room – the site of our utter panic that morning – we laid down to rest our tired feet and Sarah said something like, “Wow, Bangkok is awesome.”
I’ve been struggling to understand exactly what it was that freaked us out to such a degree.  I’m not yet sure, but I think it has to do with a combination of factors. First of all, so many things about Bangkok life are different from what we know, from the smells of food cooking on the streets to the omnipresent and traffic law spiting motorbikes to the process of negotiation that goes into every transaction.
Taking in and understanding so many changes reminded me of how I felt when I first arrived in New York City and had not the slightest of how to negotiate such a vast metropolis. Secondly, from reading the guidebook, we were aware of all the scams you may be subjected to and so, as a result, were hyperaware and on our guards. At least for a little while, this was the predominant lens through which we were looking and it tainted some of the initial experience with fear. It took that wonderful family’s offer of fruit to bewildered travelers to start to break out of that mode. Thirdly, our trip up to this point was so very, very comfortable with our dear friends Tanja and Joel and their wonderful family in Australia and being on our own was its own type of shock. In the end, I think our reactions made sense logically, but emotionally we were quite the mess that morning in Bangkok where it took all of our willpower (and drying of tears) to get out of the front door. I’m proud of us, but also humbled by the experience. It isn’t often we are challenged so deeply and it makes me realize the limits of our flexibility and also the possibilities beyond it.


  1. There is no way to prepare for how different Asia is. The sights, smells and sounds are truly overwelming. I had a similar experience my first trip, but once I embraced the differences, a whole new world opened up for me. Enjoy!!!

  2. Another memory you will never forget. One of hundreds you will collect in your travels. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Greatly enjoyed reading on your travels so far. Thanks a lot for sharing. Looking forward to more..
    Wishing you both a wonderful journey.

  4. I definitely know that feeling. I am not sure I would have left the hotel, and if I had I probably would have run back after the first wrong turn. Kudos you guys for getting over the hump! It will be downhill from here.

  5. Hey everyone!

    Thanks for the kind words. After two wild days in Bangkok we are now going 180 degrees and relaxing on the beach in Railay (southern Thailand). So peaceful. More updates to come.


  6. Amazing post!!! It is quite informative post depicting about the places in Thailand. The author along with her friend, had an exiting experience in travelling to Bangkok, wher they faced several unease moments while travelling. The pictures shared had been quite fabulous. While I was sharing this fabulous post with my friends few days back, I recalled one of my best trips in my life to Thailand. It was a sunny day when I had got along with my five friends to a Lodge being Karen Hill Tribe Lodge( ). It is situated in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and is a beautiful place to visit. The Lodge's food was too delicious.