Bangkok: A Big, Busy City, but Where are the Cows??!!

As Sarah had mentioned in our last blog, we were a bit sad to leave Nepal; our trekking adventure was one of the greatest experiences of my life, and we left Kathmandu talking about where we would trek if we only had one more week.  That being said, we were also both really excited to go to Thailand; we were both ready to hit the beach and to have the sun hit us!

Getting there was a lengthy, if uneventful, affair.  We had to fly all the way down to Mumbai, where we had a 10 hour layover, before taking a second flight to Bangkok.  Basically, we had another 20+ hour travel day, and the Mumbai airport didn’t have much to offer in the way of entertainment unless you were in the market for a case of booze or a gallon jug of perfume.  By the way, if you are ever in the Mumbai airport after eating a ton of Indian food over the past 5 weeks, and you think to yourself, “I think I will just have KFC instead because I am really tired of Indian food,” you will be making a huge mistake; grab yourself some naan and one last paneer butter masala because Mumbai KFC sucks!

Anyhow, we got into Bangkok around 7:30 in the morning, just as the  city was waking up.  From the moment we stepped off the plane, Bangkok impressed us; the airport, which we had half expected to be afloat after the floods of November, was super modern and nice.  Usually, international arrival areas are pretty bare-boned because no one spends money on the way into the country, but this one was almost fancy.

Getting to our hotel was interesting because the transit system has changed in the past few months, and so our information was null and void.  What used to be a bus service has been replaced by a super-fast Sky Train, but it does not yet go to the main tourist haunt of Banglumphu (Dusty, the last syllable is indeed pronounced, “poo”).  A cab ride from the airport is the easiest but also costs around $15.00–in a rare twist in our recent travels, they actually use their meters here, but Bangkok is a huge city, and morning traffic is bad.  Instead, we figured out which station to take the Sky Train to and then grabbed a cab for a much shorter ride.  It only cost $5 total from airport to hotel–sometimes it almost seems like we know what we are doing.  🙂

Our hotel was in the middle of tourist heaven–shops, street vendors, and restaurants selling overpriced food and beer, cheap junky clothes (why the hell do all these white city folks insist on dressing like hippies when visiting Asia?), and souvenirs that promise instant “Thai hipness” (unless that is, you are some white city folk dressed in stupid hippy clothes).  Really, though, an afternoon spent people watching in this area would be an adventure in itself; from young people who thought clothing was optional to upscale fashion experts to dirtbag backpapers, this was truly an ecletic mix of people.  Oh, to be in the mind of a Thai person watching us go!

Bangkok, on the other hand, was really cool–as I said, it is huge, quite modern in some places but still maintaining its simple local markets and a slow river life.  It is also orderly and clean with actual sidewalks that people use (for walking!) and a serious lack of wandering cows (approximately zero); after the past two months, it was like we had suddenly stepped foot on Mars!

Our first day was mostly the business of finding the bus station, getting tickets, and making reservations for later in the trip.  Having arrived both during Christmas and the high tourist season, we did not want to repeat past mistakes and find ourselves stuck.

Tuesday, however, we got after it in true Mike and Sarah style, packing in the sights and the food!  The best way to get places when you are near the river is the handy local ferry, and it was a fun ride as well.  Other ferries and long boats passed us along the way, and the giant Wat Arun loomed over the river near our first stop.  Also, there was nearly always a food market with fruit and fried temptations–some ingenious vendors even mixed the two!

Everything here, as in India and Nepal, revolves around the main religion (Buddhism in Thailand’s case), so it was no surprise that the Grand Palace, where the royal family formerly resided, was directly next to the much revered Wat Phra Kaew, or Temple of the Emerald Buddha, and surrounding complex of shrines and monuments.  All of the buildings were extremely ornate and fancy, with a distinct pagoda-like style and many colorful designs.

The terrace around the Temple of the Emerald Buddha is a sight in itself, sporting two large buildings that hold important Thai stuff that people are not allowed to see; in any case, however, they are decked out in fancy tiles or covered in either semiprecious jewels or mirrored glass–either way, they are striking.  Probably the most striking, though, was the giant Golden Chedi, with it spiral tower rising into the sky.  A giant (yet miniature) model of Angkor Wat was the most interesting part of the collection–apparently, that part of Cambodia had fallen under the King’s rule, and after being impressed by the real thing, he commissioned the model near his palace.  We learned this by eavesdropping on a very informative tour guide next to us.  🙂

After a bit more wandering, we entered the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.  The building, like several others, is adorned with a jeweled exterior, and the interior is covered in murals.  Many Buddhists dipped lotus flowers into a fountain outside the wat and bathed their crowns with beads of water; we settled for removing our shoes.  Inside, whether Buddhist or not, nearly everyone sat on the ground in near silence, taking it all in.  Atop a golden (or gold-plated, a very popular Thai style) throne, sat the Emerald Buddha encircled within the throne’s canopy.  Interestingly, this Buddha is actually made of jade, but the name had stuck by the time this was discovered–besides, what pilgrim travels mile upon mile to kneel before the awesome jade Buddha?  During war times, Laos had once confiscated the Buddha, but eventually Thailand wrested it back to the homeland.

The rest of this area makes up the Grand Palace, with more austere buildings, most of which you are also not allowed to enter.  Frankly, I don’t remember a time when I paid a good deal of money to not go into a bunch of buildings and still felt like I totally got my money’s worth at the end.  The exteriors of the buildings really were that exotic and interesting.

Having spent half a day in the palace, it was time to find ourselves a noodle cart; both Sarah and I had been looking forward to trying one of these out, and we were not disappointed!  Before long, we were sitting on sidewalk stools while feasting on egg pad thai with chopsticks (we were using the chopsticks–they weren’t actually part of the recipe) and sharing a pop.  It was a royal feast to the tune of 110 Baht (less than $4.00)!

Our last stop for the day was the Wat Pho (I had a lot of fun with this name until Sarah gently told me it was enough).  In order to get there, we had to walk through a large local market, where countless vendors hawked anything you could imagine–it was really fun to browse.  The Wat Pho is best known for its humongous Reclining Buddha, but it also is the oldest temple in Bangkok and contains the largest assortment of Buddhas as well.  For some reason, it also houses the main massage school in Thailand, but we stuck to the idols.  Wat pho, you ask?  Well, because the massages were expensive–sorry, I had to get one more in.

The Reclining Buddha was indeed huge–47 m long and 15 m high, with an enormous face and feet.  Like all Buddhas not made of emerald jade, it was gold plated over plaster and brick.  We were unfamiliar with this Buddha because it had not been popular in Nepal, but apparently it depicts his passing into the final nirvana and is quite popular here.  At first, it seemed strange to see jewelry cases with “inquire within” tags sitting next to the Buddha, but I guess this is just a different way of passing a collection plate.  My favorite part of the Buddha were the soles of his feet, covered in inlaid mother-of-pearl depicting the 108 auspicious symbols of his life.  After circling around the Buddha, we spent the next hour slipping shoes on and off as we toured the rest of the small temples; my favorite part was seeing a man bring an offering of bottled water to a Buddha statue, it being a really hot day.  I don’t plan on becoming Buddhist, but it really is a thoughtful religion.

Wednesday was our last day in Bangkok for now, and we did it up right for the second day in a row.  Another ferry ride took us to the National Museum, which has a bunch more buildings that you can’t go into.  However, it’s history building is sufficient to satisfy even the most rabid of history buffs.  The explanations were great, and I really liked all of the model scenes that accompanied each portion–history by diorama is history enjoyed; I am not kidding; simply reading about a prince fighting from on top of an elephant is not nearly as cool as viewing this happen on miniature models.  Also, if you are looking for an intriguing book, find a biography on King Rama V; I have already written enough to where you are probably not still actually reading this blog, but I could write a ton alone just on this renaissance man.

After a return to “our” noodle cart, we were all set to find a taxi to check out the world’s largest teak mansion, a former residence of good ol’ Rama V.  The only problem was that taxis outside the Grand Palace refuse to use their meters, so we had to walk a couple of blocks but found a cabbie who agreed, and we got there for a third of the “Thai price” that those other scoundrels demanded!

We really were only mildly interested in the teak mansion, but it was included in the price of our ticket to the Grand Palace from yesterday.  It ended up being really cool, though.  You have to take a tour in order to see it, and I could only understand about every ninth word that our guide said (it even makes fun of it in Lonely Planet!), but that was part of the charm.  The mansion is beautiful–and filled with beautiful things–a Victorian dark teak building constructed not with a single nail but teak pegs instead.

In this same area, we toured the throne hall, which only had one throne, but you could actually go in and see it.  Really, it was an art museum, and it introduced us to a new, and very beautiful, form of art:  beetle wings!  These irredescent wings are collected only from beetles that die of natural causes (I think because of Buddhism) and then used with other materials, mostly gold plated metal wire, to construct decorated figures of all types.  It is really a pleasing form of art to see.

The third building included with the teak mansion and throne hall, collectively known as the Dusit Palace, was the best part.  The Ananda Samakhon Throne Hall (which actually contains thrones), while impressively debonair on the outside, is even better on the inside.  Originally a reception hall when Rama V lived in the teak mansion, the building now houses an impressive collection of art in tribute to the current queen’s passion of maintaining traditional Thai art forms.  Her foundation offers training for promising artists who reside mostly in rural villages; these artists then return to their villages not only as artists themselves but also as art teachers who will ensure that this part of the culture survives.  I wish that I could show you some pictures, but photography inside any royal building is not allowed; they were, however, brilliant!  From gold-leafed thrones with intricate details and beetle-wing linings to giant teak carvings detailing the myths of auspicious animals to delicate tapestries of colorful bird life and lotus flowers, each piece was intricate and wonderful–many required between 3 and 20 artists and took from months to several years to complete.

Having taken all this in, we found ourselves short on time and spent our final two hours rushing around town to retrieve our bags from the hotel, catch some dinner, email the family to let them know we were going off the map for a bit, and–finally–to catch the bus.  Bangkok had been a blast–a wonderful contrast to the slow but relaxing ruralness of Nepal–but now, it was time to hit the beach!



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8 Responses to Bangkok: A Big, Busy City, but Where are the Cows??!!

  1. Shane O'Reilly says:

    I really, really love this post. Glad you guys are having such a great experience. Jealous as hell. 🙂

  2. Steve Heikkila says:

    Sweet! I visited the Grand Palace one winter during college. It’s pretty incredible. Did you eat any ridiculously hot Thai food yet?

    • Mike says:

      The green curry in Thailand is really spicy, and the things that look like green peppers are ulcers in a pod–for some reason, they bug me a lot more than the red ones. Luckily, I have always remembered to wash my hands BEFORE using the bathroom after eating the peppers though!

  3. Ryan Horath says:

    Don’t know about the Mumbai KFC, but KFC in Bangalore was awesome – they even gave us a tour of the kitchen. We opted for Indian food at the Delhi airport and it was disgusting. So, your best option for food at the airports in India is probably to bring your own.

    As for Bangkok, the taxis don’t always use meters, but be careful when they do because often they have tampered with the meters to make it count up faster. We had a guy who was a total crook drive us around. His meter was tampered with AND he had no clue where our hotel was, so he just kept driving until we forced him to let us out.

    • Sarah says:

      You toured a KFC in between World Heritage Sites? That’s awesome! I think you are probably right about the India airport, as well. We had pretty good luck in Bangkok, as long as we walked away from major tourist areas; I think I was actually expecting it to be worse after reading about meter scams, so it was a nice surprise. I am not sure whether you are back home quite yet, but either way, I wish you and Jola well this Christmas!

  4. Kathy says:

    Beetle wing art? Wow. You learn something new every day. And, good for Sarah for being gentle with the Wat Pho. Don’t know if I could do it. Loving living vicariously through you two. Thanks for updating!

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