OYOP: Bangkok, Thailand. Welcome to the City of Angels.
After nearly 7 months of traveling, I have developed a helpful sense of flexibility. With each change in scenery, my mind just performs a quick self-adjustment to adapt, like turning the hot and cold knobs on the shower only just slightly until they are adjusted to the perfect temperature. This flexibility is absolutely necessary when inevitably, travel plans don’t work out or new places don’t match built up expectations. But I also wonder whether I’m not fully noticing new culture differences that would have been a shock to my system just 7 months ago. I mulled over these thoughts while walking the streets of Bangkok. I could live here, I thought. A thought I seem to be casually throwing out there in each new city. It’s my way of saying to my mind, this isn’t so difficult or different, you can go ahead and adjust to the perfect temperature now.
But wait, I stopped, what am I thinking? I am asking myself this question as one foot is ankle deep in a street puddle that could only be best described as “Bangkok juice” and I am shifting my body to move out of the way of two motorcyclists swerving around me as I cross the street, even though I am in a crosswalk. The street is crowded with these motorcyclists, tuk tuks (3-wheeled taxis), and cars. There are sometimes sidewalks but they are dominated by street food vendors, flipping noodles in frying pans on an open gas flame, leaving pedestrians to walk in the crowded streets, dodging cars and Bangkok juice puddles. The air is musty, polluted with the smell of trash on the side of the road and something resembling old seafood. Still, I casually stepped out of the way of the motorcyclists with a dreamy smile and wondered what was really so different about this side of the world anyway. Had I been traveling too long to notice anymore? Had this become my new normal?
Bangkok is a massive city. There is a metro system, a bus system, a sky train system (above ground metro), taxis, tuk tuks, and boats to get around the city’s canal system, and I’m not even sure all of these methods could take you everywhere you wanted to visit. We barely scratched the surface, of course, with only a few days here. It wasn’t that we are trying to rush through, but Bangkok is just another big city, and they start to look the same. For me, the real magic is in the smaller towns, the countryside, the places where local culture still thrives and an old temple is not sitting right next door to a 5 story, shiny new shopping center with stores like Prada and Coach.
We stayed in a local, boutique hotel in Bangkok near a sky train station. We expect accommodation in Thailand to range from $15-$25 per night for a private room in a guest house with a bathroom and sometimes with breakfast. The hotel in Bangkok had mostly visitors from other parts of Thailand and neighboring Asian countries. Most backpackers in Bangkok stay in an area called Banglamphu on Khao San Road, a street known, even to locals, as the backpacker part of town. It is basically a road with restaurants, many of which serve western food, tattoo parlors, and lots of dive bars, where young, western backpackers come to stay in bunk bed hostels, drink loads of cheap beer, and stumble around Khao San Road in their newly purchased elephant print parachute pants that are sold on every street corner in Bangkok. Visiting Khao San Road made me feel old. What was so great about coming to the part of town where college-age westerners isolate themselves and spend all of their dollars on beer and boast about how dirty their shared bathrooms are? There are just much more interesting parts of the city to see.
We first arrived in Bangkok hungry and eager to try Thai food from Thailand, which was such an exciting thought for me. I kept saying, I can’t believe I’m going to eat pad thai in Thailand! As if pad thai is what should remind me that I’m on the other side of the world. The hotel happened to be directly across the street from what was described to us as a “beer garden”. It was an open-air tent filled with small wooden tables and plastic chairs, 6 or 7 different local food vendors, and two beer vendors selling the local Chang and Singha brands. We ordered fried noodles and tom yum, a spicy coconut milk based soup packed with lemongrass and shrimp, two Chang beers, and sat outside for hours watching people on the streets of Bangkok, listening to a local band, and adjusting the knobs in our brains to adapt to life here in Thailand.
For sightseeing, we headed to old Bangkok, the area that used to be the entire town hundreds of years ago before it became the bustling city that it is today. It took an hour and a half by public transportation to get there, (that’s how big Bangkok is) which included a half hour boat ride on the city’s canal system for about $1 per person, which was fun in itself. The crowded boat meandered slowly along the canal as the announcer, who acted more like a tour guide, provided commentary over a microphone about each of the areas we’d pass. “And to your right is Chinatown, where my sister used to travel to go to get me apples, because there are dark red, sweet apples that I like, and they are sold in Chinatown!” I didn’t learn much about Bangkok from his commentary.
There are so many wats (temples) to see in Bangkok, so we had to choose. We chose to visit Wat Pho, one of biggest and oldest temples in the city, dating back to the 16th century. It was impressive, the crowds were few, and the best part was that we happened to arrive during lunch time so we got to see all of the Buddhist monks in their orange robes eating lunch together. I stare at monks in awe the way people gawk at Beyoncé, which is probably not what the monks are going for. But they just look so content and peaceful and are fascinating to me. “Look!” I’d say to James “they are eating soup!” Or “that monk is using an iPad. I wonder what he’s typing. I didn’t know monks used iPads!” It turns out though that, in fact, monks are just people too (and some people might want to remind themselves that about Beyoncé).
Other sights, like the Grand Palace, can feel much more chaotic to visit. The place is packed with busloads of tour groups with tour leaders holding giant flags while shouting to get their groups to stay together and trying to be heard over the shouting of other groups. The strict dress code also caused a hassle. We knew that our knees and shoulders had to be covered, so we brought sarongs, instead of wearing long pants and shirts since Bangkok is incredibly hot and humid, like Southeast Louisiana on a late afternoon in August. But we were surprised to be told that the sarongs weren’t enough, so we each had to leave a deposit to borrow clothes, button down shirts and baggy pants, to wear into the site. The experience only got more chaotic when a lightning storm with heavy rain started, and we crowded with the hundreds of other sightseers underneath the few covered walkways. This is one of those times that adjusting the knobs becomes a little more difficult, when it feels like you are trapped with hoards of tourists and should have just seen the Grand Palace from a distance sitting next to a couple of locals on a park bench enjoying the view from afar with a nice, cold coconut filled with ice cream. Next time.
One of the best parts about being in Bangkok was that we were able to reconnect with Nicha, our new Thai friend who we met in Bali, at a nice small resort hotel where all of the 10 guests quickly became friends, dined together, and even let me teach them yoga for 3 days in a row! Nicha lives 2 hours away from Bangkok but drove in just to spend an evening in Chinatown with us.
Chinatown was a fantastic place to spend an evening. Brightly lit signs on tall buildings glow red onto busy streets filled with tuk tuks swerving by and pedestrians out for street food dinners and cheap nightlife. Food vendors sell everything from noodle and rice dishes, to Chinese herbs, to the spiky, smelly durian fruit that is banned on all public transportation and hotel rooms for its ghastly smell, to controversial “delicacies” like shark fin soup. We settled in on a packed street corner for noodles with bamboo shoots, mushrooms, and vegetables. The menu was in Thai, the vendor spoke Chinese, and some English had to be used to close the language barrier gap. We are so fortunate to have grown up learning English, the go-to travel language even between neighboring countries in Asia. I have always had an admiration for the emphasis on bi-lingual and multi-lingual education elsewhere in the world, and I know how difficult it is to learn a second language, especially as an adult. But most travelers find it necessary to learn some English on top of their other languages to be helpful even in non-English speaking countries. So, may I suggest that the next time you have a bad day, simply appreciate this fortune you were born with on top of so many others!
After dinner, Nicha encouraged us to try bird’s nest soup for dessert. At first, I shrugged easily. Sure, I said, cute name, what is it? Little did I expect that the name actually described exactly what we would be eating. The soup comes from the contents of a swallow’s nest, which is made entirely of the saliva of the bird, taken by humans, solidified, and turned into a hot or cold soup served as a dessert. Nicha explained that the Chinese believe that consuming this soup every day will give you a long life. We ordered the soup cold. It came in a small bowl, and it looked like a thick, clear liquid with little floating white flakes that resembled dried, minced coconut. Nicha giggled as we struggled to bring spoon to mouth and reminded us that we’d still be alive after eating it. It had a slightly sweet taste, and I struggled with the somewhat gooey texture. I couldn’t block mental images of being high on a a tree branch like a baby bird while the swallow spit directly into my mouth.
Overall, I enjoyed exploring the streets of Bangkok. Despite the heat, the smells, and the crowded streets, I appreciated the history, the people, and of course, the Thai street food on every corner at every time of day.