Two Nights in Bangkok
I wasn’t sure what to expect of Bangkok. My ideas had been colored by pop culture (see the 1980s gem below) so I thought the city might be seedy and somewhat run down.
What I found turned out to be the complete opposite.
I was traveling to Bangkok solo and when I arrived in the evening I quickly discovered that my smart phone didn’t work on the Thai network. So I was a going off of a hand drawn map trying to find the apartment of the PiA fellow who was kind enough to let me stay. I stopped to ask a parking attendant the direction. He didn’t speak much English so he pointed. A few minutes into my walk, he pulled up on his motorbike next to me, smiled and pointed telling me to turn down the street. After another five minutes I thought was on the right street so I stopped into a somewhat fancy restaurant to check. The entire staff took an interest. An English speaker was found, I was offered a seat and a cold bottle of water and after some debate, the parking attendant said he knew where I was trying to go and took me on his motorbike and then wouldn’t let me pay or tip him for his troubles. Turns out the streets had very similar names. It really is nice to have your “technology” stop working every now and again because I may have never discovered why Thailand has been dubbed “the land of a thousand smiles.”
Thailand was never colonized and the monarchy remains a source of pride as well controversy — Thailand strictly enforces lese majeste laws. The Grand Palace in Bangkok is an incredible area with buildings from different centuries and wats (temples), including the famous Wat Phra Kaew which houses the emerald Buddha (he’s a tiny fellow). The actual residential area of the complex remains off-limits to the swarms of tourists.
I don’t think I’ve ever been as hot as I was when exploring the Grand Palace. I tried to duck into any shade I could find, which meant getting close to the intricate walls. My advice to everyone is go early in the morning.
Behind the Grand Palace is Wat Pho, home to the famous reclining Buddha. After seeing the tiny emerald Buddha, the reclining Buddha was a surprise, I never expected it to be so large, and have such cool toes:
The room where the Buddha reclines is filled with a constant clinking and clanking as people drop coins into bowls. According to Wikipedia, there are 108 bowls marking the “auspicious characters of Buddha.” Dropping the coins is supposed to bring good luck and helps the monks keep things in spic-and-span shape.
Several months ago at work I had read an article that mentioned an American by the name of Jim Thompson who had fallen in love with Thailand and helped to revive the silk industry there before disappearing into the Malaysian jungle to never be heard from again. Americans of the era stayed with Thompson at his large home in Bangkok. Somerset Maugham was a guest and he told Thompson, “You have not only beautiful things, but what is rare you have arranged them with faultless taste.” The Jim Thompson House is worth a visit and the cafe is a great place to cool off.
Some of my favorite moments were wandering around and observing daily life. In the middle of a busy shopping area, people stopped at the Erawan Shrine to pay their respects. With all the hustle of daily life, it’s nice to see people stop for a few minutes.
And if you get tired of walking, get on a boat or a tuk-tuk. Or duck into a mall for some A/C. I walked around the Terminal 21 mall, which had a crazy airport theme as well as a section for Thai designers which is worth a look.
Bangkok had everything I wish Jakarta did: clean, air-conditioned public transit, well-labeled streets, cab and tuk-tuk drivers who will happily give walking instructions without hassling you, and sidewalks without gaping holes. I’m beginning to realize that besides perhaps a major city in India, I think I live in one of Asia’s most difficult cities. At least every day is interesting.
Did I mention I took a cooking class in Bangkok? Food post coming soon.