Sunday, October 4, 2009


Bangkok. Where do I begin?

We arrived in Bangkok in the afternoon. I was giddy with excitement, but also a bit tired because of the early flight. Our first Bangkok experience was taking a taxi from the airport to Banglamphu. Banglamphu is a relatively traditional neighborhood that's close to many of the attractive religious sites in Bangkok but far away from the commercial and business districts. It's perfect for budget travelers, and as a result, it contains Th Khao San, which is one of the most notorious "backpacker ghettos" in all of Asia. I'll tell you a bit more about Th Khao San in a bit.

Our taxi driver was a relaxed, middle-aged man sporting one of the most bad-ass haircuts I've seen in a while. The main feature of his 'do might be considered something of a Thai Fashion Mullet. It was shaved close on the sides, with a poofy top and a well groomed extension that flowed well past his shoulders and down his back. It was so extreme that I didn't even notice the blonde highlights at the tip of his mullet until Mimi pointed them out to me. The natural gray streaks only added to the bombast of this man's hairdo.

Anyways, it was a very pleasant taxi ride and I was quite surprised at lack of potholes on the roads and the overall smoothness of our voyage. After about an hour we arrived at Boworn BB, the oddly named guesthouse we had picked out a week before. When I had called to make a reservation, I had spoken to a cheerful man with an extremely high voice. The man turned out to be a woman who owns and operates Boworn BB with a few other ladies. I never caught her name, but she was a great host. Nothing but laughs, smiles and funny stories. The place itself was also very clean, spacious and simple. The best part of all though, was that it was a solid four blocks from Th Khao San. This meant that we were far enough away from the all-night parties and drunken tourists, but close enough to the tourist-friendly commerce, such as bookstores, travel agencies, and most importantly, street food.

Indeed, the very first thing we did in Bangkok was look for delicious street food. Almost immediately, we stumbled upon stall after stall of mysterious but potentially delicious street snacks. Before we knew it, we had sampled some veggie noodles, deep fried taro and tofu, coconut rice inside grilled banana leaf, and some bizarre chewy fried green balls. The best thing of all though was the fresh orange juice, which at seventy-five cents for a 16 oz bottle is perhaps the bargain of the century. The juice, which comes from golf ball sized green oranges, is actually more akin to tangerine juice. The words sweet and tangy, while applicable, don't even come close to doing this juice justice. This juice was phenomenal.

Eventually, we made our way over to the infamous Th Khao San to check it out. Th Khao San (which foreigners often call "The Khao San Road") emerged as a destination for backpackers in the mid-1980s. I won't go into the whole history, but at one point, it was a much needed modest home away from home for backpackers and budget travelers making their way across Asia. It was a place you could get some toast and eggs or a cold European beer after weeks of traveling in Cambodia. But over the years, this one little street gradually morphed into something both hideous and hilarious. How to describe it? Backpacker Mardi Gras? A booze-fueled Oriental wonderland for trashy Europeans? Whatever you want to call it, it was definitely a scene.

Packed to the brim with foreigners of all varieties, but primarily inhabited by what I like to call Euro-hippies, Khao San is in essence one giant party zone. Its main offerings included overpriced Western food, drinks such as "booze buckets" and tableside mini kegs, and hippie-inspired clothing. Additionally, either a throbbing techno beat or the voice of Bob Marley was never out of earshot. Sub-par street food rounded out the mix. Khao San Road reeked of decandance and indulgence. Sure, people seemed like they were having a good time, but what did all this have to do with Thailand? The whole thing reminded me of what I imagine Cancun, Mexico to be like during college spring break; a place where Westerners can indulge and party on the cheap. A place where the local culture is merely a backdrop for the party. It was as if the foreigners wanted to be in Thailand, but they didn't REALLY want to be in Thailand. Who goes to Thailand to watch British football matches? But, alas, it is what it is. The whole thing was very bizarre and overall worth avoiding. At the same time, we found ourselves taking more than one stroll down Khao San just to soak it up. What can I say?

We spent the next day exploring a very sizable chunk of Bangkok, including many of the neighborhoods along the Chao Praya, which is Bangkok's main river. The first place we checked out was the Amulet Market, an indoor collection of countless stalls selling tiny metal and stone figurines that ward off bad spirits. It is my understanding that Thai people are very superstitious and amulets are very important. Many of the vendors were closely examining the amulets under magnifying glasses. What they were looking at I wasn't really sure. I bought a tiny little figurine of an old, skinny man sitting cross-legged. I'm not sure about its significance but it was only twenty-five cents and seemed kind of cool.

We then worked our way south and checked out a few of Bangkok's top religious sites. Our first stop was Wat Phra Kaew, which was very overcrowded with tourists and also charged a steep admission price. In a move that may have been unwise, we decided to skip it and check out some other places. So we moved onto a second, much smaller Wat (temple) just a few blocks away. This one was nearly deserted and we basically had the place to ourselves. The highlight was a series of intricately decorated doorways that were lined with various jewels.

The next place we went to was Wat Pho, a huge temple complex that takes up several city blocks. As we walked around, I was able to get a few good pictures of the towering stupas (spires) that dominate Wat Pho.

Although walking around the various buildings was pretty cool, the highlight was definitely Wat Pho's infamous Reclining Buddha, which is in fact the largest reclining Buddha in the world. Photos don't really capture the enormity of this sculpture, which runs the length of an entire building. Well, here is a picture anyways:

We then hopped on the very fun and efficient river ferry and got off near Bangkok's Chinatown. Chinatown was historically Bangkok's main commercial district and to this day is known for its overcrowded, narrow and chaotic alleyways. Frankly, I had seen enough places like this in China, so I was not super impressed with this neighborhood. As it often is with me and Mimi, the highlight for us came during a snack break. In of the alleyways in Chinatown, we found a man selling what we believed to be fried quail eggs. Maybe they were from some other bird, but they were little and had spots on them. They almost looked like they could have been reptile eggs, although I knew they weren't. The man had a nifty little cooking device that yielded quarter sized sunny-side up eggs that were both cooked and shaped perfectly. For 30 baht (about a dollar) he gave us ten of these eggs, which were topped off with a quick spray of soy sauce. Here is a picture of his stand:

The last site we visited was another Wat located at the southern tip of Chinatown. This one was called Wat Traimit and it features the world's largest gold Buddha. The Buddha, which is ten feet tall and made of over five tons of pure gold, was a site to behold. Amazingly enough, we were the only tourists in the whole place! The rest of the people were either resident monks or local people who had come to pray.

We finished our day by taking the ferry back up the river and getting a drink at a rooftop bar that offered a view of Wat Arun, one of Bangkok's most iconic landmarks. The drinks were overpriced, but the view was wonderful. The one thing that concerned us were the dark clouds looming above us. Sure enough, before we got a chance to leave, the rain started coming down, and it came down hard. And guess what? It never stopped! It just kept pouring and pouring, and eventually we had to run through the streets to catch a taxi back to the hostel. Before the rain came down though, I was able to get this picture of Wat Arun:

The next day we explored even more of Bangkok. I won't go into all of the details, but one of the highlights was a neighborhood called Thonburi, a quieter, more residential area across that lies across the river. There, we found two Wats that were completely off the tourist trail. The first, Wat Prayoon, was dominated by a beautiful white dome that powerfully reflected the sun. Besides two friendly guards, we were literally the only visitors in the entire complex. Here are a few pictures.

The second temple, whose name I am unable to track down, featured a forty-five foot Buddha image. Again, we were the only tourists in the temple. We sat in the back as a steady stream of worshipping Thais came to pray to the Buddha, make a donation, and ring a gong. Before we left, I made a small donation and rang the gong, which had a great tone.

Another highlight of that day included a visit to Jim Thompson's House. Jim Thompson was a former OSS agent who fell in love with Thai culture and moved their permanently after the war. He bought some land in Bangkok and built a beautiful house that actually combined six different traditional Thai homes. The guided tour was a bit dull at times, but the architecture and artifacts inside the house were pretty cool.

We spent the final two days of our time in Thailand on an island called Ko Samet. Ko Samet is about four hours away from Bangkok and features some beautiful beaches. The trip down was made awesome by the quirky double decker tour bus we rode down in. At about 7:45 in the morning, while the bus was still idling, the driver came into our section and turned on the TV. As a clearly pirated video of Michael Jackson performing circa 1993 popped onto the screen, the driver turned to us and let out a big smile. "Michael Jackson!" he said, as the volume of video pierced our ears. A British woman was not impressed though, and she immediately asked him to lower the volume.

After one bus transfer, an interesting boat ride out to the island, and a bumpy ride on the back of a pick-up truck, we finally arrived at Ao Phai, the small beach we had selected for our stay. As we came in on the pick-up, I started getting some serious Jurassic Park vibes. A small island in the tropics? Rugged roads traversed only by pick-up trucks? If you don't believe me, take a look at this picture. Pure JP:

While we were looking around for a good place to stay, an Australian man approached me and mysteriously asked, "Looking for a bungalow?" Who was this guy? Muldoon? (In Jurassic Park, Muldoon is the Australian bounty hunter hired by John Hammond to contain the dinasaurs if anything gets out of hand.) Something about this guy didn't seem right. I cautiously asked him who he was and why he wanted to know about my business. It turned out that he owned "a little place up the road called the Lost Resort." As I write this, I can tell that this story is not translating well, but I assure you that this man was incredibly creepy and gave us both weird vibes. We passed on the Lost Resort and settled on a supremely discounted if not somewhat haggard little bungalow about two minutes from the beach.

We spent the rest of the day swimming in and walking along the beautiful beach. Also, as I briefly mentioned in a previous post, we rented a motorbike and rode it around the island. This was very fun even though it took a bit of practice for me to get the hang of it. The next morning we hopped on the bike headed to the very southern tip of the island. There, we found a beach that was virtually uninhabited. Unfortunately, we almost immediately had to head back and catch the boat back to the mainland. Our time on Ko Samet had all to quickly come to an end. Here is a picture of me with the motorbike:

Overall, I have very positive feelings towards Bangkok. It is one of those cities that I've always wanted to visit and it was very surreal to actually be there. True to the stereotypes, the people are very friendly and the food is a delicious combination of sweet and spicy. The one stereotype I found to be untrue, however, was the claim that Bangkok is chaotic, overcrowded and overwhelming. Maybe its because I had just spent a month in China, but Bangkok was much cleaner and well-organized than I had anticipated. Sure, there was a decent amount of traffic and the pollution was a bit of a turnoff, but Bangkok is definitely a place I would be eager to return to. If anything else, it would give me a reason to get back to Ko Samet, or one of Thailand's other beach islands. I'll leave you with one last picture. I swear this wasn't photoshopped!

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