Feb 23 2008

Bangkok block!

Published by at 1:37 pm 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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3 responses so far

3 Responses to “Bangkok block!”

  1. Laurieon 24 Feb 2008 at 11:14 am

    “sugar melted in water” Thanks for being so self-effacing! It is a joy to read this blog!

    Kelly & Matt were here for a long weekend. It was a great visit despite the cold weather. You all look properly dressed for Thailand in Feb!

    I used to dream of hiking the Appalachian trail (before I was 40). Then it turned into dreaming of going one state at a time; maybe never doing VA. ( before I was 50) Now the dream is becoming a vagabond and doing hostels around the world! Thanks for the inspritations!

  2. craig of travelvice.comon 29 Feb 2008 at 8:14 pm

    Be sure to take in a ping-pong show — classic Bangkok, and not as dirty as you’d think.

  3. chubbon 01 Mar 2008 at 11:17 am

    Bangkok isnt the most expensive city in South East Asia! Check out other countries like Singapore and you’ll know why. Happy touring(:

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