Bangkok

Bangkok Travel Blog

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I flew to Bangkok last Tuesday on Air Asia, which is like a Malaysian
version of Southwest Airlines.  It cost $60, which was hundreds less than
any other airline offered.  I really liked them because I could buy my
tickets online; none of the other regional carriers has figured out
e-tickets yet.  For a couple of my upcoming flights, the tickets are
actually handwritten.

According to the departure times, I was expecting the flight to last about
an hour, but an hour into the flight, it was apparent that we were not close
to landing.  I then realized that there is a time change between Singapore
and Bangkok, even though they are roughly at the same longitude.  Singapore
wants to be on the same time as Beijing and Hong Kong, so they’re an hour
later than the rest of the region.  I liked being able to look at my watch
and have both the correct local time and the correct East Coast time, but
now that the difference is 11 hours, I have to think about it.

The pilot soon announced that we were nearing Bangkok, but all I could see
below was farmland.  It wasn’t like American farmland -- the plots are long
thin rectangles, usually with a house at the end and it appears that every inch
of land for hundreds of miles is under cultivation.  Then, out of nowhere
emerged Bangkok.

When I got off the plane and had collected my luggage (Air Asia didn’t
consider my bag to be of “cabin size”), I headed toward the public taxi
stand, having been warned in my guidebook about private taxi scams.  Katie,
a friend of a friend from Georgetown, is living in Bangkok this
year teaching English, and she generously offered to let me stay with her,
so I found a metered taxi and gave the driver directions to her apartment.

Bangkok drivers redefine your idea of personal space on the road.   At one
point we were following another car at 50 miles an hour with less than a
foot between us.  I closed my eyes and took some deep breaths.  Eventually
we got off the expressway (a toll highway that is your only hope of avoiding
gridlock traffic in Bangkok) and slowed down a bit, though at lower speeds
in Bangkok it’s acceptable to drive even closer to other motorists.  We
zoomed past objects on both sides with hairwidths to spare.  Forget any
ideas you have about using turn signals, stopping for pedestrians, or even
driving on your own side of the road.  The only rule of the road seems to be
not to hit anything else.  You have to give the drivers some credit, though;
I sure couldn’t have gotten us through without a scratch.   Later, I
experienced Bangkok traffic as a pedestrian: there are no lights for
pedestrians at crosswalks (and very few traffic lights in general), so you
just have to jump out into traffic and run for it.

Bangkok is a strange-looking city.  There is no definable center, and
skyscrapers are scattered here and there among low-rise buildings.  While I
suppose some neighborhoods are nicer than others, it seems in any part a
luxury apartment complex can be right next door to a rusting shack.   In
many parts of the city, the sidewalks are filled with countless food
vendors.  Compared to Singapore, which is so clean it practically sparkles,
Bangkok seems pretty grimy.  But when you have more grime, you usually gain
a bit of charm, too.

When I got to Katie’s apartment, I was supposed to call up to her room, and
Jessie, a friend of Katie’s who was also staying in Bangkok, would
come down to let me in.  I didn't know Jesse well before the trip, but we had a good time. 

She was fun, and I was glad to be with someone who’d had a couple
days to get to know her way around the city.

Katie’s apartment is small (a studio), but nice.  Most important, it has air
conditioning.  Jessie and I waited for Katie to get home from work, and then
we headed out to run some errands and get a bite to eat.  Katie stayed back
because she had a cold and wanted to rest.  I think I have since caught her
cold, but so far it’s a mild one at least.  Anyway, we walked down Tong Lo,
the main street near Katie’s apartment and stopped for some lunch.  We both
had laksa, a soup of noodles and chicken in coconut milk and curry, which
Jessie had grown fond of in Singapore.  Apparently this laksa was not up to
Singaporean standards, but I thought it was very good.  We had another great
meal for dinner at a restaurant on a small sidestreet in Katie’s
neighborhood.  Katie recommended the fried catfish (cut up into such tiny
pieces that it looked nothing like catfish) with spicy unripened mango
salsa.  After dinner we went back to Katie’s place and watched the coverage
of the Kerry VP announcement on CNN.

The next morning, after a decent night’s sleep, Jessie and I went out
sightseeing.  The Skytrain (Bangkok’s above-ground “subway”) is a long walk
from Katie’s apartment, and it was already getting hot, so Jessie made us
take motorcycles there.  I first resisted but finally said “okay, but if I
hate it I don’t have to do it again.”  And I hated it.  The point of taking
a motorcycle rather than a cab is that the motorcycles can go much faster,
zooming in and out of lanes of traffic, often riding down the center of the
road between the two lanes.  You have to hold on to a handlebar behind you,
and I found it difficult to keep my balance that way.  I almost screamed
(but that would have required taking a breath) when we came within inches of
a bus coming in our direction.  Jessie found her ride exhilarating and was
disappointed when I insisted on cabs and tuk-tuks from the point on, but
really, a Bangkok taxi is adventure enough for me.

We stopped for some breakfast (noodle soup with wantons and pork, and some
tea) outside of the Skytrain.  It cost us each 75 cents.  We got on the
Skytrain, which is like a moving ice-box (but for once, I wasn’t complaining
about being cold), and we got off at the closest stop to our destination and
then took a cab from there to the Royal Palace and its nearby temples, Wat
Phra Kaew.  Once we got there, we borrowed shirts and shoes from the
visitors’ office, because our sleeveless shirts and sandals were
inappropriate for the temples.  They’ve got a good system set up: the
clothes are free to borrow, and you leave your ID with them.  We couldn’t
figure out the point of swapping shoes, since all they did was give us
open-toed sandals to wear to replace the open-toed sandals we came with.

I have never seen anything like the temples at Wat Phra Kaew (though by the
end of this trip I’ll probably be seeing things like it and saying “just
another temple,” like “just another church” in Europe).  The decoration on
the outsides is amazingly intricate; because they are covered with small
pieces of tile and glass, the temples sparkle.  Most of the buildings at the
Royal Palace and Wat Phra Kaew are closed to the public, but a few of the
temples are open.  We went into one containing the “Emerald Buddha,” which I
read is not really emerald, but was mistaken for it long ago.  The Emerald
Buddha has three sets of gold clothing, one for each season (Bangkok has
three seasons: hot, very hot, and hot and wet).  After Wat Phra Kaew and the
Royal Palace, we went down the street to Wat Pho, another set of beautiful
temples, one of which houses the Reclining Buddha, a gold-leafed figure 46
meters long and 15 meters tall, with size 94 feet (I’m making that last part
up, but those were some huge feet).  Later, we went across the river to see
Wat Arun, a beautiful temple covered with a mosaic of porcelain tiles.

Between temples, Jessie and I went for our first Thai massage.  We intended
to go to the Wat Pho Massage School, but we got lost and ended up somewhere
else instead.  We both choose the 1 hour body massage for 300 baht (about
$7.50).  It was mid-afternoon, our clothes were drenched with sweat, and I
would have been willing to pay 300 baht just to sit in an air-conditioned
space for an hour.

Traditional Thai massage is different from a typical Western massage:
special massage clothes are worn, no oil is used, and the technique involves
a lot of pressure (rather than kneading) and stretching.  Jessie’s masseuse
gave her more of what I consider a standard massage, whereas mine had me
contorted in all sorts of yoga-master positions.  Some of it was very nice,
though some of it was quite painful.  Afterwards, they gave us some Chinese
tea, and we did both leave feeling very relaxed.  Since then, I’ve also
tried a reflexology foot massage (again, some good, some painful) and a
neck, head, and shoulder massage on the beach, every minute of which was
wonderful.

In the late afternoon, we were looking for a travel agent and an internet
café, so we took a tuk-tuk to the infamous (well, at least to SE Asia
backpackers) Khao San Road. Khao San Road is a short street near the river
packed with guesthouses, restaurants, bars, travel agents, internet cafes,
and sidewalk vendors.  It is entirely inhabited by backpackers; the only
Thai around are the workers.  The guidebook described it as a “backpacker
ghetto.”  There were so many neon signs it reminded me of Las Vegas, though
the similarities stop there.  We found the services we had come for, and I
bought a pretty blue embroidered cotton skirt for $5.  Even though KSR was
totally tacky and inauthentic, the atmosphere was festive, and I’m glad we
stopped by.

That night, we had another amazing dinner with Katie (what will I do when
I’m not with someone who knows the best places?) at one of her favorite
restaurants.  We had spicy tuna, fried crab, swordfish, a panang curry dish,
and coconut ice cream for dessert.  It cost us about $3.75 each.

The next morning, Jessie left for Laos, and I headed out to run some
errands.  I picked up some doxycycline, since the malaria pills I had gotten
back home won’t work in some of the areas I’m going to, and paid about $10
for 60 pills, which is less than my co-pay would have been at home.  I also
got my Vietnamese visa, for which they charge an arm and a leg, photocopied
a few pages of Katie’s Let’s Go book (they have better accomodation advice
than Lonely Planet, in my opinion), and booked my ticket from Luang Prabang
to Hanoi.  The travel agent was a very nice woman who didn’t charge much
commission and who gave me a couple of pretty Thai address books (with
English letters) for free on my way out.  Later I noticed a sticker on the
wrapper that said “100% Elephant Dung Paper.”

During the day, I also visited the Jim Thompson House, former home of an
American entrepreneur who lived for a few years in Thailand and revitalized
the Thai silk industry.  For his home in Bangkok, he choose five traditional
Thai houses from other parts of the country, had them dismantled (there are
no nails used in traditional Thai homes), brought to Bangkok, and
reconstructed.  One of them he lived in, and the rest he used to house his
art collections.  The buildings and gardens were very pretty, though I
didn’t understand much of the mandatory tour, which was given by a Thai
guide in what was supposed to be English, but what I am convinced was mostly
Thai with a few English words scattered here and there.

Other than that, I haven’t had many problems yet with the language barrier. 
I haven’t met any Thais yet who speak good English, but most people speak at
least a few words.  Everyone is very friendly, which helps when you’re
trying to communicate with hand gestures.  Almost all of the signs are in
both Thai and English, and a lot of store names and advertisements are just
in English.  I can’t figure it out--a store’s name and signs will be
entirely in English (and good English, too), but when you go inside, nobody
speaks it.  The English signs can’t just be there for the foreigners’
benefit, because many of these places are not in tourist areas or are not
the kind of places--furnitures stores, for instance, or picture framing
shops--that tourists would go.  I think if I were Thai, I would learn
English just so that I could read all the signs.  I imagine it would get
annoying to have a language I didn’t understand all around.  I also don’t
know what you would do if you were a foreign tourist who didn’t speak
English or Thai, since I haven’t seen anything else around.

As I expected, there are many Western stores and restaurant chains around,
though there are not as many Burger Kings or McDonalds as I though there’d
be.  Unlike in Western Europe, if you want to eat American fast food here,
you have to seek it out.  I was surprised to find that 7-11s are ubiquitous;
they’re not nearly this common in the US.  I’ve also seen Dunkin Donuts,
several Sizzlers, KFC, and an Outback.

After meeting up with Katie at her apartment later that day, we spent some
time figuring out how we could work in a ride on the brand new (5 day old)
Bangkok subway system into our evening plans.  I can’t explain it, but I
really like subways and if a city has one, I want to ride on it.  Katie
wanted to try it too, just because she lives there and hadn’t been on it
yet.  With some difficulty--“subway” hasn’t yet entered the limited English
vocabulary of most taxi drivers--we took a cab to the nearest station.  The
new subway was very nice (though not quite as nice as Singapore’s), and I
liked the light plastic chips that you wave over the turnstile machine to
enter and exit.  I also liked the glass enclosure around the train and
tracks, which ensure that nobody can fall or be pushed onto the tracks.

For dinner, we chose a restaurant near one of the subways stops called
Cabbages and Condoms, proceeds from which go to Thai sex education and AIDS
prevention programs.  The restaurant was in a lovely setting, with gardens
and fountains and white holiday lights strung along the terraces.  There
were a lot of foreigners there but also a good number of Thais.  The food
was good, and with the bill, they delivered condoms instead of mints.  The
restaurant was started up by a Thai man who believed that for Thailand to
modernize, contraception needed to be as easy to buy as vegetables at the
market.  Come to think of it, there aren’t many vegetables at the market. 
Fruit is much easier to find.  Maybe it should be called Coconuts and
Condoms.

On our way back to Katie’s, we saw an elephant in the street.  Katie had
told me and Jessie that sometimes the elephant owners will take them for
walks in the city, getting tourists to pay to feed them sugar, but Jessie
thought she was making it up.  Unfortunately, Jessie had left that morning,
so she will have to take my word for it.

The next morning, Friday, I left for Koh Pha Ngan.  I hope to write that one
tomorrow--it's not good for me to get more than a country behind.
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Bangkok
photo by: Deats