Archive for the 'Bangkok' Category

Apr 24 2008

Back to Bangkok

Published by under Bangkok,Cambodia,Thailand

Back to Bangkok! Three magical words. As much of a relief as it was to LEAVE Bangkok after our first visit, the idea of returning to the City of Chaos now lightened both our spirits. After spending these last five weeks traversing Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia, we’d both gained a new appreciation for the land of mango sticky rice and modern health care. We would only have a day in Bangkok before heading south for the Thai beaches, but finding these two necessities topped our packed capital city agenda.

Because nothing ever is ever as simple as it sounds in SE Asia, just getting to Bangkok was an unwanted adventure in itself. We booked a bus ride that would take us from Siem Reap, Cambodia straight across the Thai border, and onward to Bangkok. The travel agency sent a minivan to pick us up at our hotel around 6:00am, and we thought we were on our way. Instead, the minivan driver spent the next hour driving around the city, trying to find more passengers to bring to the bus. When we finally arrived at the bus stop, we learned that the travel agency had over-sold the bus. Because the travel agencies do not consider empty seats to be a prerequisite for selling tickets, they had sold tickets to a dozen or so more passengers than the bus could accommodate. We sat on the sidewalk with the other confused passengers as they bus company worked out a solution.

After two hours of doing absolutely nothing, taxis began to pull up at the bus stop. The bus station had hired them to take the excess passengers all the way to Bangkok, which is about a ten-hour ride. When we saw the company representatives begin forcing five passengers, plus luggage, into each taxi, we put on our battle faces. Having paid for seats on one of the plush-looking A/C buses shown on the travel agency posters, we were NOT about to cram into the backseat of a taxi with two other people, plus their luggage, for a ten-hour ride.

But just as a company rep approached us to try and load our luggage into a taxi, his cell phone rang. The bus to Bangkok had two empty seats after all. A quick look around revealed that Brittany and I were the only group of two left among the passengers waiting for taxi seats, so we found ourselves loaded into a new mini-van, and whisked away to meet the bus.

Another hour later, the mini-van came to a stop, and as we climbed out, I noted with dismay that there was only one bus in sight. Looking something like an extended VW Minibus, with backpacks and elbows jutting out of every window, this was a far cry from the bus we’d been shown at the time of booking. Sadly, five weeks in this region had caused me to expect the bait-and-switch by this point, and I simply climbed aboard with head hung low. After all, nothing we’ve ever paid for up front since leaving Thailand has been delivered as promised. But for Brittany, this was a breaking point. She took one look at the bus, and began yelling at the company driver who’d just dropped us off.

“THIS is not the bus we paid for! Does this bus even have air-conditioning? We PAID for air-conditioning!”

“Sure, sure, air-con,” the driver replied. “FRESH air.”

This sent up a roar of laughter from the employees on the VW Minibus. And why not? They know that we farang have no recourse in these situations but to bend over and grab our ankles. This bus is going to Bangkok with our without us, and the idea of getting something as ridiculous as a REFUND is a pipedream in this culture. And so it was, that four hours after first being picked up from our hotel, we finally left Siem Reap, in an extra-long VW Minibus with no A/C, backpackers in every seat, luggage piled high in the aisle, and five company employees in plastic chairs beside the driver. Why must there always be at least four employees sitting in plastic chairs beside the bus driver? This remains one of SE Asia’s greatest mysteries, and the only conclusion I can draw based on the evidence is that they’re simply on hand to harmonize with the driver during on-board karaoke.

I’ve tried to block out the details of that cramped, sweaty, full-day ride, but I do remember that we finally arrived in Bangkok several hours later than we’d been promised. The bus dropped us off at the infamous Khao San Road, one of the prime contenders for “Backpacker Mecca of the World.” Cheap accommodation, food geared to the Western palate, an abundance of souvenirs… no matter what you’re looking for, if you arrive in Bangkok with a backpack on your back, odds are you’ll be on Khao San Road within the hour. But despite the fact that we were in Bangkok for six days the first time around, we never actually saw Khao San Road.

That’s a record, you know. The backpackers that we bumped into second place lasted only twelve hours in Bangkok before finally succumbing to the magnetic power of Khao San Road. Their record stood for years before we came along. We were eager to finally see what all the fuss was about this time around, and had decided before arriving that we would find a hotel on Khao San Road for our one night in the city. We slid off the bus, marched into the first seedy hotel we saw, and immediately booked a room. Time elapsed from bus to bed: forty-two seconds. Another record! We decided to celebrate by immediately setting out to explore this Khao San Road we’d heard so much about.

Kha San Road, Bangkok, ThailandHow to describe Khao San Road? It’s like someone crammed the Atlantic City boardwalk in between some dirty Bangkok alleys, gave it one look, and determined that it would be THE PERFECT PLACE to sell Che T-shirts, pirated DVDs, unsanitary western food, counterfeit designer jeans, plastic buckets of Thai whiskey, questionable currency exchange services, and porn. And based on the number of eager customers elbowing for room in the middle of the street, I guess that someone was right. But for us, no. Not even “no thank you,” just no. As in, get us out of here this instant. I’d say we gave Khao San Road about ten minutes before extricating ourselves, never to look back. It would have been even sooner, but we passed a woman selling mango sticky rice on our way out. OK, so Khao San Road does have one redeeming quality.

We woke up early the next morning with a list of things to accomplish in Bangkok before leaving on an overnight bus south to Krabi…

  • Visit a travel clinic for consultation on several lingering medical issues, ranging from Brittany’s second degree burn (blame a Phnom Penh motorcycle exhaust pipe) to my own on-going war with the indefatigable Bangkok belly.
  • Find a storage facility to lock up our oversized duffel bag of tailored clothes for the next three weeks
  • Buy a waterproof camera case from Bangkok’s always-useful Pantips Plaza
  • Eat delicious fried chicken and sticky rice from a restaurant we love here
  • Buy sunscreen and bug repellant from a pharmacy (you’d be amazed how hard these can be to find outside of Thailand)
  • Buy our plane tickets home from a Khao San Road travel agency
  • Buy tickets at the bus station for tonight’s overnight bus to Krabi

An ambitious list, but nothing that shouldn’t be feasibly accomplished in one full day. Except that this is Bangkok. And while the places we needed to visit are spread out over the city, it’s not the distance that makes hitting them all difficult: it’s the traffic. No matter how close your destination may be, the relentless Bangkok traffic ensures that it’s going to take you at least an hour to get there by taxi or tuk-tuk. Which is why you take the overhead SkyTrain whenever possible. But for reasons unknown, the SkyTrain was only set up to service half of the city. If your destination happens to be in the other half… well, I hope you’re not in any hurry. And if you are, may God have mercy on your soul.

As fate would have it, most of our destinations for the day were, quite inconveniently, established in that SkyTrain-forsaken other half of Bangkok. We try not to let getting up early become a habit, but when it came to today, we knew what we were up against. We tried to tackle the items on our itinerary as efficiently as possible. First stop: a travel clinic I’d found online.

After an hour-long taxi ride, and an hour-long wait in the clinic’s reception area, we finally saw a doctor. We got attention for all our many needs, but as for my Bangkok belly, the doctor needed to run some tests. We were told to come back in a few hours for the results.

Having to return to the clinic in the afternoon was an unexpected wrinkle, so we decided to split up for increased efficiency. I caught a taxi to the bus station to buy tickets to Krabi, while Brittany headed back to the travel agencies on Khao San Road to shop for plane tickets. But it only took that long for things to unravel.

By the time I made it back to Khao San Road, bus tickets in hand, I was expecting that Brittany would have already bought our plane tickets home. Instead, the tickets turned out to be much more expensive than the prices we’d been quoted by these same agencies over the phone, and I found Brittany scrambling from agency to agency in search of better prices. I joined in the hunt, but after an hour of fruitless searching, we realized it was already early afternoon, and we needed to get back to the travel clinic.

Another hour-long taxi ride to the clinic, this time with duffel bag of tailored clothes in tow. Once more, we waited and waited for the doctor, only to learn that the tests showed nothing wrong with me. I could tell the doctor all the reasons that is definitely not the case, but there’s no time for that. We have to get a waterproof camera case, find something to eat, and get this duffel bag to the storage facility before it closes at 6:00. And more bad news: it’s already 5:00.

Change of plan: straight to the storage facility! We can get the camera case and food after we store this bag. It’s not like it’s going to take an hour to reach the storage facility… we can actually take the SkyTrain there!

Which might have worked, had we not gotten lost after disembarking the SkyTrain. By the time we FIND the storage facility, it’s 5 minutes to 6:00. We burst through the doors, duffel bag in hand, just as the manager is closing up. We start filling out the paperwork to get our bag stored for the next three weeks, and answering all the manager’s questions about where we’re headed. But now we’ve got some really bad news: the overnight bus leaves at 7:00, which gives us exactly one hour to get back to our hotel, gather up our luggage, and then make it to the bus station. The minimum amount of time that I can imagine for this trip is an hour and a half.

“I’m sorry!” I blurt. “I know this is rude, but we have a bus to catch. Can we just leave this bag with you, and you fill out the rest of this paperwork?” I’m already backing out the door as I ask. The manager seems confused, but agrees to my proposal. Or I hope he did… we didn’t stick around to really hear his answer. Our bus tickets were quite expensive, and there’s no refund if you miss the bus. You just have to buy expensive tickets again tomorrow night. The countdown to 7:00 has officially begun.

6:00pm: We sprint to the nearest SkyTrain station. It doesn’t go all the way to our hotel, but if we get off at the nearest stop to our hotel, we can cover half the distance of the trip more quickly than a taxi could.

6:15pm: We disembark the SkyTrain, and run down the steps from the elevated platform into the street. I flag down the first tuk-tuk I see.

6:16pm: “Khao San Road!” I shout to the tuk-tuk driver. He quotes me an inflated price, but we have no time to argue right now. We climb aboard, and although the tuk-tuk drivers rarely speak any English, I can’t help myself from yelling, “and FAST!” Guess what? This tuk-tuk driver speaks English.

6:17pm: I re-attach my head to my neck. The driver has put the pedal to the floor, and we’re weaving through Bangkok traffic like I’ve never seen. Mr. Hoa, eat your heart out! I encourage the most reckless of our driver’s dare-devil maneuvers with cheers.

6:40pm: We arrive at our hotel, and leap from the tuk-tuk before it comes to a full stop. We grab our luggage, and I try to convince this driver to take us all the way to the bus station. He doesn’t want to make that long trip, meaning we’ve got to find another driver.

6:45pm: After several minutes of being turned down by prospective drivers, a taxi agrees to take us to the bus station. He speaks a little English, and I explain our situation to him. “7:00??” he asks. “Uh-oh.”

7:00pm: “Uh-oh” is right. Our bus is officially leaving the station now, and we’re stuck kilometers away, in standstill traffic.

7:20pm: We arrive at the bus station. As Brittany unloads our luggage and pays the driver, I make a dash for the boarding platform. If the bus is still somehow here, I have to hold the driver. Pushing my way through the crowd, I ride up the two escalators, run across the booking floor, and fight my way to the front of the line at the security checkpoint. Flashing my tickets, I dash past the two posted guards.

7:25pm: I race up to a desk in the middle of the boarding platform. “Tickets?” asks the seated woman. I pull our sweaty tickets from my pocket and hand them over. “Oi!” she shouts. She jumps out of her seat, and runs toward one of the platforms, shouting in Thai at the top of her lungs.

7:26pm: I follow her, and can’t believe what I see. Our bus has just pulled away from the platform, but this woman has been able to get the attention of the driver. He backs the bus up, back into the boarding area. The driver, a little confused, hops off to help me with my luggage. Of course, Brittany has all of that. I can only yell “Thank you! One second! My friend!” before darting back through the crowds to the security checkpoint. There I find Brittany, detained by security for not having a ticket, and I show our boarding confirmation tickets to the guard to get us both through.

7:30pm: Our luggage now stowed safely underneath, our bus for Krabi departs. And somehow, we’re on it. We failed to get plane tickets, a camera case, sunscreen, bug spray, or any food all day. We’re sweaty, smelly, exhausted, and hungry. But we’re on it. At this moment, despite the catastrophe today amounted to, we feel like the two luckiest people in Bangkok. And that’s when we look up to see the steward handing out individual boxes from Mr. Donut.

I couldn’t write a better “happily ever after” if I wanted to. THE END!

But just for fun, here are a couple of shaky videos taken on the ever-popular Khao San Road…

Khao San Road, Bangkok from Brittany & Ben on Vimeo.

Khao San Road, Bangkok from Brittany & Ben on Vimeo.

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Mar 02 2008

Going out with a Bangkok!

Published by under Bangkok,Thailand

Shortly after Ben discovered there was an amulet market in Bangkok, we found ourselves turning into a dark, low-roofed alley near the city’s waterfront. I’m going to pretend his excitement didn’t stem from a love of fantasy role-playing video games. We’d heard that the amulet trade in Thailand was extensive and it didn’t take us long to notice the silver chain poking out from underneath the shirt collar of nearly every Thai, so we wanted to see what an amulet market was all about.


The alley extended as far as the eye could see, crowded with row upon row of vendors selling Buddha figurines — some tiny and encased in plastic to wear around your neck, others nearly life-sized — elephant and monkey statues, Buddhist symbols, amulet repair, and, strangely enough, images of the royal family to wear as amulets. The Thai regard their monarch with a reverence that can only be described as extreme. You can’t go in to any establishment without seeing a nearly shrine-like set up surrounding a large portrait of the king or queen. As a foreigner accustomed to jaded criticism of one’s own government, it’s important to remember that in Thailand you DO NOT talk about the royal family for fear of being charged with lese-majeste and ending up in prison for seven years, as many unfortunate Westerners before me have discovered. For that reason, I’ll end this discussion now.

Because we simply couldn’t leave an amulet market empty handed, I bought the tiniest Buddha, no bigger than my fingertip. Sometimes I rub his belly for good luck.

We left the market for one of Bangkok’s many mammoth malls, so Ben could pick up some cheap mosquito-proof lightweight trekking pants. Have we mentioned how huge everything is in Bangkok? Coming from Europe, where grocery stores, shopping centers and highways are teeny and squeezed into very limited space, it was a shock to walk into Bangkok’s numerous behemoth supermarkets and malls. Did you know it was possible to get lost in a supermarket? It is when it’s six stories high and the size of a city block.

Our next stop was a mall we’d read about dedicated entirely to electronics. At Pantips Plaza, you can buy cameras, TVs, computer hardware, and game systems. You can also flip through binders upon binders of software that sells in the States for $1000+ but here, mysteriously, for only $10! Really, I have no idea how they keep their prices so low. Thailand is amazing! So, theoretically, you could buy a fancy photo and video editing suite and an entire language-learning course for $12 and ship it home to the U.S. I mean, it would be possible to do that, if you wanted. Hypothetically speaking, of course.

So I’d hardly seen any prostitutes in Bangkok. I know, I know: most normal people would consider this a good thing. But with all the talk we’d heard from fellow travelers about how crazy and ubiquitous BKK’s sex-trade operation is, despite having wandered the entire city for nearly a week, I couldn’t help but feel like we must be missing something.

The main reason we’d been sheltered from such activity is that, honestly, we’d passed out every night at 9:00. Yes, I know, nerdy. But what with the climate change and daily ventures into the heart of the city, we found ourselves way too tired to do anything at night.

It was no different on our last night in Bangkok: we were exhausted. But since we’d been told that no trip to this city is complete without a visit to Phatpong, the notorious night market, we downed some Red Bull (which actually comes from Thailand, although the version here is much stronger, not carbonated, and comes with a health warning) and hit the town. It was all in the name of responsible journalism. How can I give an accurate depiction of Bangkok to you, beloved blog readers, if I do not experience all the city has to offer?

Turns out we weren’t missing much. Do you want to see creepy old white guys with too-young Thai girls? No, you don’t. (But if you come to Bangkok, you will. Such disturbing couples aren’t limited to after-hour night markets, and are as plentiful in Bangkok as spiky hair.)

But Phatpong is mostly notorious for the many erotic go-go girl clubs that line the streets. You know what I’m talking about: the shows in which girls do … um … tricks, I guess? with ping-pong balls. I’m won’t go into detail. I’m kind of uncomfortable.

It’s obvious Ben and I weren’t going to patronize such clubs and we thought they’d be easily avoidable. Just don’t go in. Right?

PhatpongWrong. Remember those restaurant greeters back on Crete? These clubs employ similar tactics to lure customers to their tables, only they are far, far more intrusive and annoying. They follow you down the street, waving white, laminated “menus” of sorts in your face with a list of all the incredible feats their girls can perform, and screaming “Come sit for free!!” and “One drink! One drink!” And by “you” I mean ME as for some reason every bouncer on the street honed in on me as their target and refused to leave me alone even when I screamed “LOOK, I DON’T CARE WHAT YOUR GIRLS CAN DO WITH CHOPSTICKS, I AM NOT GOING INSIDE.”

To escape the flock of hawkers, we chose a small bar on the outskirts to relax, order beers, and people watch. But were we left alone? No. This time, sketchy men would slide up beside Ben, whip booklets out of their pockets, flip through the pages, and whisper, “sexy pictures! sexy videos! 100 baht!”

All in all, Phatpong is pretty tame stuff. What with the gawking families wandering around, it’s a tourist attraction more than a serious red-light district. There are definite neighborhoods in Bangkok where the real red-light happenings go down, but I’m okay with never witnessing those first-hand.

It was a fitting end to our week in Bangkok! The next day we were leaving on a train heading north to continue our Thailand adventures…

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Mar 01 2008

What’s on the Menu at Bangkok’s Chatuchuk Market?

Published by under Bangkok,Thailand

Assorted seafood on sticks at Bangkok's Chatuchuk MarketDonuts, vipers, and neckties. You’d really think you’d need to visit three separate stores to complete that shopping list. Not so in Bangkok’s (in)famous Chatuchuk Market. The best piece of advice that Lonely Planet ever gave us was to set aside an entire day for the market experience.

We arrived at 10:00 on Saturday morning to find an area the size of a fairground full of shoppers elbowing for room in the innumerable rows and columns of shop stalls. It is certainly madness, but there is a semblance of method. The grid is (mostly) categorized into clusters of similar stalls. To your left might be toy stalls, then clothes stalls, followed by an illegal cock-fighting ring. On the right, art stalls, food stalls, and pet stalls. Those last two overlap more than I’d prefer.

Speaking of tasty meals, I was intimidated by the food stalls at first, and not just because I’d already seen how cheap the puppies go next door. I was hesitant because none of the food stalls seemed to have any means – be it menu, sign, or pictures – to indicate what they serve. It seemed to me that, somehow, the customers simply know. But standing around awkwardly gawking outside the food establishments was quickly becoming tiresome and embarassing, so I finally selected a stall with table seating, and we plopped down in two empty chairs at a table full of diners. The waitress hurried over to take our order, and rattled off something in rapid-fire Thai. I shrugged and pointed at what the old lady across from me was eating. She looked pretty frail, and I figured if it wasn’t killing her, I could probably handle it.

My meal appeared quickly, and turned out to be some kind of noodle soup with white balls. The old lady whose meal I’d copied tried to assist me with the proper Thai method of meal preparation. Cackling toothlessly, she handed me different condiments from the center of the table, and motioned for me to add them to my soup. I recognized the soy sauce, chili peppers, and salt. By the way, isn’t soy sauce basically liquid salt? And before you assume that they are both present so that one can choose their preferred salting method, I’ll tell you that the Thais definitely pour both into their soup. Home-made MSG! A fourth condiment bottle contained a mystery element, which an impromptu taste test failed to identify. I added it to my soup anyway, at which point the old lady’s granddaughter revealed herself to be English speaking. “Fish sauce” she happily volunteered. I still can’t figure out what that means (is it FOR fish? FROM fish?) but it was a welcome addition to the cauldron. I must have looked like I was enjoying it, because when some Korean tourists replaced the old lady and granddaughter at our table, they ordered by pointing at what I was eating.

Bunnies in dresses at Bangkok's Chatuchuk MarketWe didn’t end up leaving Chatuchuk Market until sometime after 6:00 in the evening, when lots of the stalls started shutting down. Eight hours sounds like a long time to spend in the market, but we could have easily spent longer. Between the contagious frenzy of the Thai shoppers, and the novelty of being able to BUY THINGS after five penny-pinching months in Europe, the day flew by. The only exception was when we managed to get lost in the reptile aisles, deep in the bowels of the sprawling pet section. Squeezing my way through dark rows of grossly over-crowded snake and lizard terrariums, finding new horrors around every corner, and wondering if I’d ever see daylight again, I reflected that the speed of time seems to be relative, rather than absolute. More to come on this soon though – I’m working on something of a theory to summarily express this discovery.

Concerning the following day, I must here record an observation for the benefit of all interested foreign investors. I can personally attest to this shocking truth: on February 17, 2008, it rained in Bangkok. I’m sure you’ve been reading lately about Bangkok’s recent ground-breaking innovation: a suspended ceiling of smog over the city to protect its residents from precipitation, spy satellites, and nuclear warheads. A great deal of controversy surrounded the project from the outset, due in no small part to the mysterious motives of its biggest financial contributor, the reclusive and rarely-photographed Mr. Donut. While the project was denounced as “frivolous” by a spokesman for the League of Anti-Thailand Southeast Asian Nations (LATSEAN), several Western European capitals have expressed more than a passing interest in the progress of what has been widely dubbed Operation Sponge. I can’t speak to the cause of Sponge’s failure (although the upcoming press conference is sure to address it) but I can estimate that it was off-line for about one hour. While Sponge’s lead designer has continually stressed that the project’s lack of precedent will necessitate on-the-job troubleshooting for weeks and months after its launch, this system failure must still be regarded as a disappointment for the city, at a time when all eyes seem to be on Bangkok.

It only rained for an hour, but five minutes in that acid dip will surely leave you looking like the Joker, so we locked ourselves inside until the danger passed. In the middle of the afternoon, an abrupt end to the torrential rain signalled that Sponge was back on-line. I opened the window to breathe the comforting fumes that were already returning to the air. As I sat there watching Bangkok’s newest deformed denizens run dripping and screaming to their homes, I knew, for once, exactly what I had to do: get fried chicken.

We were in luck. While Europe would never tolerate such a foreign abomination as fried chicken, the Thais know how to eat. Thai fried chicken is a street food staple, and we’d even read about one restaurant known around town for its take on the down-home classic. We found the joint right down the street from the U.S. Embassy (location, location, location) and ordered up a big plate with lots of sticky rice on the side. With quality fried chicken like this so readily available, I can’t understand who’s keeping all of Bangkok’s 3-story KFCs in business. Which reminds me: the coveted award for Most Irrelevant U.S. Chain That Has Inexplicably Managed to Become the Starbucks of Thailand goes to… it’s a tie! Between KFC and the ubiquitous 7-11. The Thai government has famously cracked down on the drug trade, but you won’t hear the people complain. Their crack is the Colonel’s secret recipe.

Actually, I think that sums up that day. It rained and we ate fried chicken. Bangkok can drive you up the wall, but some days, you just gotta love it.

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Feb 29 2008

Emerald Buddhas, Lucky Buddhas & Giant Buddhas

Published by under Bangkok,Thailand

So I’m not going to lie: Bangkok kicked my ass. It said, you think you’ve TRAVELED, GIRL? You think you’ve SEEN THINGS? all sassy-like. And then it gave me such a butt-whoopin’ that, by the end of our second full day there, I found myself curled up in a ball in the corner of my bed, whimpering like a baby.

That morning started out on a better note. We wanted to actually do some sightseeing, so we hopped a water taxi to the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew, two of Bangkok’s top attractions (funnily enough, since Bangkok doesn’t have a comprehensive public transportation system, water taxis along the Chao Phraya river and its canals are popular). Upon disembarking, we were greeting by the typical chaos of streets lined with hundreds of food vendors. Bangkok’s street food is legendary, and rightfully so: it is amazing. I haven’t had such good food since Italy. I’d go into more detail, but I have a feeling I’m going to have to devote an entire entry to Thai food very soon.

We were also greeted by Thai con artists (we can’t escape these people!), whose modus operandi is to tell you that wherever you’re headed is closed, and instead you should come with them to see the “lucky Buddha.” We never did find out where they actually take you. The incredible thing is that even if you insist your destination is open – even if you’re within sight of the door and can see people walking inside – they will maintain that it is actually closed. There’s no use arguing. By the end of our week in Bangkok we’d simply claim that we’d already seen the “lucky Buddha,” and it sucked. They didn’t really know how to respond to that.

entering the grand palaceThe Grand Palace was the former residence of the Thai monarch, so it is of course ornate and huge and great. But the real reason anyone comes to the Grand Palace grounds is to see the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, or Wat Phra Kaew. The Emerald Buddha is a much-venerated Buddha image, with a long and crazy history. It was initially covered in plaster and thought to be just another everyday, run-of-the-mill Buddha, until a fall in the 15th century revealed it’s shiny interior (which, despite the name, is not emerald). Then, of course, it followed your typical and tumultuous valuable Buddha path: stolen by Laos, stolen back by Thai invaders, etc., etc. When it was finally and officially recaptured by the Thais, it was placed in the country’s most splendid temple, Wat Phra Kaew, where it sits today, serving as a popular Buddhist pilgrimage point.

As our first wat visit, we learned the ins and outs of wat etiquette. You must remove your shoes before entering the temple. When you sit on the floor inside, you must be careful not to point you feet towards the Buddha. The Thais regard the head as the most sacred and “highest” part of the body and feet as the lowest and dirtiest, so pointing your feet at an object is a severe sign of disrespect. You must also, of course, be appropriately dressed. Since the Grand Palace is such a tourist destination, they offer long pants and long-sleeved shirts for clueless tourists that show up too scantily clad. So it was hilarious to see large white men walking around in what were basically Hammer pants with a Mickey Mouse print.

Now, I thought I’d seen ornate, having visited celebrated European cathedrals, but I’ve seen NOTHING like these Buddhist temples (which is strange, ’cause isn’t Buddhism all about simplifying?). Every possible surface of Wat Phra Kaew is covered in colorful, glittering glass or jewels or intricate murals. The revered Emerald Buddha sits atop a huge, decorated, gilded pedestal. Given all the build-up, I kind of expected the Buddha to be … well, bigger, at the very least. But not only does it seem small, it gets lost amongst all the trappings around it. The Emerald Buddha does, however, have a different outfit for each season of the year. The king himself comes and ceremoniously changes his outfit each season!

It was about this time when the afternoon heat was really getting to me (how is this the “cool” season??). We exited the complex to find food and water, but of course, when you need something, it’s nowhere to be found. We decided to soldier on to one more wat before stopping to rest.

Turned out to be worth it. Wat Pho contains a Buddha that is nearly 50 meters long. Yes, half the length of a football field. And gold. Seriously. We filmed a video, but it hardly captures the size of this massive thing.

Biggest Buddha EVER from Brittany & Ben on Vimeo.

Having spent hours enduring the oppressive heat and smog of Bangkok without food or water, I pretty much threw a hissy fit right after we left Wat Pho, so we waved down a tuk-tuk to take us home.

our tuk tuk driver
Our tuk-tuk driver.

These are not the romantic tuk-tuks of yesteryear (which I’ve always envisioned as a wheelbarrow pulled by a nimble and swift Asian man). They are basically glorified golf carts. And they weave through traffic as they please, ignoring other vehicles, pedestrians and traffic laws. Not only are you holding on for dear life, convinced you’re going to die with each near-miss, you’re also swallowing exhaust fumes and gasping for oxygen. The tuk-tuk drivers (and pretty much all street workers in Bangkok), have to wear surgical masks because the pollution is so bad. I don’t carry around surgical masks in my purse, so you can imagine how the tuk-tuk ride improved my mood.

Which is how I found myself, at four o’clock in the afternoon, passed out on my bed in my room, where I stayed until eight o’clock the next morning.

We learned several important lessons. You cannot, in Southeast Asia, push yourself like you can in Europe. Always, always carry water. Take lots of breaks. And visit Wat Pho because huge, reclining Buddhas are sweet.

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Feb 23 2008

Bangkok block!

Published by under Bangkok,Thailand

You can’t breathe. Exhaust fumes from the thousands of speeding cars and motorcycles choke your every attempt in this oppressive humidity, and turn the cloudless sky a hazy gray. You look up anyway, and see the cement underbelly of the SkyTrain track snaking between two high-rises up the street. You can feel the vibration from the train rushing overhead, but its roars are obliterated by the blaring car horns as a tuk-tuk driver caroms his way across eight lanes of traffic, and skids to a stop in front of your sidewalk. He shouts to you in broken English to get in for a ride, but you keep walking, and resist the urge to pull the city map from your pocket. The neighborhood you’ve wandered into has no street signs anyway, and looking lost will quickly attract every taxi tout and con artist in the city. About all you can be sure of is that you’ve managed to find yet another sex-trade district, and it’s gotten so hot this afternoon that you’re now visibly sweating through your second shirt of the day. But nothing can bother you this afternoon, because you’re on your way in flip-flops to visit a Buddha statue you hear is longer than half a football field, and you’ve got a plastic bag of fried banana slices in your hand. Welcome to Bangkok.

Honorable Ronald McDonald in Bangkok's Siam SquareIt’s been said that Bangkok is a city you will either love or hate, and it’s easy to see why the metropolis is so polarizing. Think of Bangkok as a the New York City of Southeast Asia: it’s severely overcrowded, terribly polluted, and the most expensive city in this part of the world. On the other hand, its cultural diversity makes for amazing dining options, the shopping is the best we’ve found on our trip, and its nightlife is deservedly world-famous. But before we could decide on which side of the love/hate fence we sit, there was plenty to explore in this first stop on our SE Asian adventure.

Like most international visitors to Bangkok, our first impression of the city was its giant airport, which is the hub for all SE Asian air travel, and threatens to quickly overwhelm any first-time visitor. Luckily for us, my aunt Nancy put me in touch with some friends of hers living in Bangkok, who had given me some tips on navigating the airport experience. We waded our way through the masses to immigration control, where we had our pictures taken for security, and were granted visiting rights for up to 28 days. If we want to stay longer than 28 days in Thailand (which we do), we need to exit the country for one night, and then return, which somehow resets our 28-day limit. Using this in-and-out method, we don’t need to apply for expensive visas. Strange but true.

Once the busy government employees at immigration control decided to allow us into the country (hooray!), we hurried to the baggage claim, where we were relieved to find that Etihad Airways (who we would highly recommend for your intercontinental needs) managed to not lose our checked luggage. Special thanks, by the way, to Brittany’s family, for taking home our giant suitcases full of winter clothes from Paris, and leaving us their smaller, nimbler versions. Baggage claim leads you toward the exit, and an inviting desk with an English sign that reads: OFFICIAL TAXIS. This one probably would have fooled us, but we already knew from my aunt’s friends that these “official taxis” are actually expensive limos, so we ignored the smiling ladies at the desk and their ride invitations in fluent English. Instead, we marched downstairs and through an unmarked door to the outside, where we found a sidewalk desk setting up everyone but the suckers upstairs with colorful “non-official” taxis. 45 minutes and 450 baht ($15) later, we had arrived at our new home for the week: Asha Guest House.

The backpacker style of accommodation in Thailand is a sure sign that you’re not in Europe anymore. All across Europe, hostels cater to the long-term traveler by offering relief from expensive hotels in the form of dorm-style bedrooms. This system allow you to rent a single bunk in a room with several other backpackers, and share a bathroom with the other travelers on your floor. But because Thailand is so cheap for most foreign visitors, hostels are few and far between. Instead, backpackers flock to the abundance of guesthouses, which tend to combine the community atmosphere of a hostel with the affordable luxury of private bedrooms. To give you an idea of the price difference, consider that we were happy to pay 15 euros each for hostel bunk beds in Western Europe. With the current painful euro to dollar conversion, that’s a total of $45 per night. In our Bangkok guesthouse, a private fan-cooled double room costs 300 baht, or $10 per night. We sprang for a room with A/C, which set us back a whopping 450 baht ($15). And did I mention our guesthouse has a swimming pool, koi pond, free WIFI, and a great on-site restaurant? All of this in the most expensive city in SE Asia. You can understand why we’ve been asking ourselves why we didn’t come here sooner.

The next morning, we inexplicably found ourselves wide awake at 7:30. Since the only days I’m used to seeing this hour are the ones in which I’m suffering through the insomnia and regret of another overnight bus ride, I looked at my watch suspiciously. But when the clocks in the guesthouse confirmed the time, I concluded that air travel must throw me off schedule even more than I thought. The early start was great news, however, because we had a pressing need to tackle. Namely, we made the mistake of arriving in Thailand without any sort of guidebook, which had more to do with the Paris bookstore prices than any desire to disavow ourselves of the wisdom of those that came before us. Fortunately, several people had recommended an apparently famous chain called Asia Books for our English-language book needs. We found one listed in Siam Square, which turns out to be a big shopping destination in Bangkok, and is sort of the center of the city. We jumped on the BTS SkyTrain (what’s that word? monorail!), and hopped off in Siam Square with no real idea where we’d find this alleged “Asia Books.” So we simply started to wander around amongst the towering department stores and restaurants, all of which looked very expensive, and packed with super-chic Thais.

We’d only been wandering for a couple of minutes with a friendly old woman approached us and asked if she could help us find what we were looking for. We asked for Asia Books, and she pointed out the direction of the store, but said that it was closed for lunch at the moment, and would re-open in just a couple of hours. In the meantime, she suggested we enjoy some shopping in the city, because as luck would have it, we had arrived on Valentine’s Day, which meant there were some amazing one-day only sales in lots of stores. This sounded appealing enough, and her next suggestion was that what we should REALLY do while in Bangkok is get some clothes tailored at prices impossible to find back in the United States. She was walking with us as she talked, and all of a sudden, wouldn’t you know it? We somehow happened upon a tuk-tuk driver parked by the side of the road. The old lady selflessly offered to tell this tuk-tuk driver to take us to the best tailor around, with really cheap prices. She asked him how much it would cost to go to this particular tailor’s shop, and when he quoted the low low price, they both looked at us expectantly. I’m happy to report that we did NOT fall for this scam, which we have since learned is one of the most popular in Bangkok. As it turns out, the overpriced tuk-tuk leads to a sketchy overpriced tailor, who only accepts payment before making your clothes, and then delivers a terrible product, if any product at all. We quickly declined the offer at the tuk-tuk, and as we hurried away, I heard the old lady mutter something in Thai to the driver she had supposedly met at the same moment we did. Bangkok block!

But I have to hand it to the Thai thieves – they go for the charming approach, rather than the blunt hand-in-your-pocket approach native to European scoundrels. The old lady was well-dressed, acted grandmotherly toward us, and put on a show like I’ve never seen from a sticky-fingered gypsy. The only problem with these scams (which range from shoddy tailoring to fake gems) is that they can’t work twice. Since that first old woman, we have been approached at every potential tourist magnet in Bangkok by friendly people who try to convince us that the attraction we came to see is closed. The sites have never been closed in any of these instances, so we never stick around to find out what each con artist is trying to sell. Twenty minutes after ditching our elderly companion in Siam Square, we finally found Asia Books, in the precise opposite direction that she had pointed. And surprise! It wasn’t closed at all.

After buying an English-language guidebook, we decided to look it over in a nearby cafe. There we bought overpriced drinks, which seem to be the favorite kind for elite Thai shopaholics. I was confused to find that my iced coffee was served with some kind of clear gel in shot glass. It had no smell, but tasted very sweet, and I figured it must be a palate-cleansing post-coffee refreshment. I liked it so much that I even asked the waiter what it was called, and he told me the Thai name: “sugar melted in water.” I suffered through Brittany’s laughter as it slowly sunk in that this gel was a sweetener for my coffee, not the tiny independent refreshment I had consumed it as. The waiter did an excellent job of stifling his laughter in my presence, but forgot that his restaurant has thin walls – immediately after he returned to the back of the house, I heard the entire kitchen staff burst out laughing. Glad I could bring some joy into your lives, my new Thai friends!

Erawan Shrine in BangkokThanks to our new guidebook, we discovered that this cafe that we could now never revisit was very close to a popular shrine in the middle of the city. We set out in its direction, and found the Erawan Shrine to be an outdoor altar dedicated to a 4-headed Brahman satatue, which all seems very out of place sitting in one corner of a Grand Hyatt complex, and underneath several criss-crossing overpasses at a busy traffic intersection. Nevertheless, the little shrine was packed with devotees lighting candles and incense, hanging wreaths on the statue altar, and even setting tiny birds free from hand-held cages. All of these items (soon-to-be-liberated birds included) are available for purchase at sidewalk stalls just outside the shrine boundaries.

The statue here is believed to grant wishes, but considering that we arrived on a random weekday mid-afternoon, I mentioned that it seemed surprisingly crowded. Then Brittany reminded me that it was Valentine’s Day, and it all made sense again. And since I’m sure you can guess how the rest of the day goes once the stupid boyfriend has to be reminded that it’s Valentine’s Day, we will call this THE END.

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Feb 13 2008

Baht Ate Our Dollars?

Published by under Bangkok,Thailand

I really want to tell you all about our sparkling week in Paris, which was a great last European hurrah, and I promise we’ll get to all of it. But I wanted to post a quick update to let everyone know that … [drum roll] … we’re in Bangkok! After nearly 14 hours on a plane, a strange layover in the United Arab Emirates, and a taxi ride (I know! A taxi. What unimaginable luxury!), we’ve arrived at a guest house just outside of the Bangkok city center which is costing us about $3 per night. It’s also sunny and ninety degrees. I love Thailand already.

On the other hand, there are ants crawling out of my computer keyboard, I am trying to get used to the idea of eating rice for breakfast every morning, and Ben keeps telling me everything tastes like Hepatitis A.

Disease-free in Thailand

Ben and I decided about a month ago that our budget would never allow us to stay in Europe for as long as we’d originally planned with the dollar weakening pretty much hourly, so we bumped our tickets to Thailand up. Unfortunately this gave us very little time to plan for our Southeast Asian journey, so we have no idea where we’re going from here. During our last days in Paris we frantically tried to prepare, and we did do some stuff: shipped our remaining winter/European trip items home, switched to tiny jungle-friendly suitcases, and somehow managed to muddle through getting all our proper vaccinations. Now we’re invincible! We did not, however, get a guidebook, as the cheapest we could find an English guide to Thailand was 30 euros, and that’s just far too much to pay for knowledge. So that’s the number one item on today’s agenda.

More updates to come, very soon. I would say goodbye in Thai, but since we don’t have a guidebook, I don’t know how. I just asked Ben how to say it and he said: “I don’t know! The only Thai word I know is ‘baht.’ Oh and ‘pad thai.’”

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