Thailand - Bangkok.


We arrived in Bangkok just after midnight from Beijing. The airport was actually a sight to behold in its own right, but that attitude may be partially due to the thrill of finally being here.

It is important to realize that this trip was booked almost 6 months in advance, after nearly 3 months of discussion. Thailand always seemed like the trip way ahead, we had finally arrived. 

Night one, Afsi booked us in a hostel on the west side of the city, in a place called Khao San Baan Thai. It was a simple, clean and welcoming place. Showers downstairs, with exterior room doors scattered throughout the alleyway compound like small homes that had been turned into apartments. I think I speak for both of us in saying that the neither room quality, comfort nor quiet had any impact on our desire to just lay flat for a change and salvage some real sleep. 

After a few precious hours of rest, our internal clocks went haywire and we woke up with the sun.  The hostel served a delicious breakfast of bread with smiles toasted into them, fruit, eggs and... hot dogs. It was the antithesis of what I expected for my first Thai meal, but it was all welcome and accompanied with instant coffee. Not wanting to waste any time, we packed up the room, entrusted our luggage to the hostess, and went out to explore.

Our arrival at night dampened our first impression of the city, though the night markets as viewed by cab are an impressive and unfamiliar sight. In the bright morning light, Bangkok is alive with color. Apartments with foliage covering every inch of patio, shops peddling cooking classes, gold leaf rooftops, dark brown canals, it all overwhelms the view, while the street vendors and cafes cook eggs, noodles, chicken and vegetables to the background music of steaming dishes, tuk-tuk mopeds, music and voices. 

Walking down the sidewalk, we finally saw our first temple, a small Wat tucked between shops and apartments. Wat Chana Songkhram Rachawora Mahawiharn. It was a great moment of cultures colliding when we respectfully removed our shoes and entered the temple sanctuary and sat- with our feet behind us- facing the Buddha alongside an elderly woman, under the supervision of a temple guard. We left the temple and walked on to the National Museum.

Part of the National Museum 

The museum was fascinating, as we walked through hundreds of years of history. We read about wars fought on the back of elephants, and of kings who adored and emulated western culture. But the part about the museum that taught us the most about Thailand's people happened after we walked out the gates back onto the sidewalk. We weren't 20 feet from the museum gate when we were approached by a man interested in our home country. He was friendly and inquisitive and helpful in a way that made me immediately suspicious. We told him vaguely of our plans to visit the Grand Palace and he balked, saying "Don't go there until the afternoon, 1 o'clock maybe. Thai celebration in the morning." He then proceeded to take my map and make several recommendations on alternative places to visit that were off the very-well-beaten tourist path.

And so he hailed us a tuk-tuk, told us a valuable phrase ("Pang pai" - "too expensive"), and told the driver where to take us. In direct contrast to every similar situation experienced in Atlanta, New York, San Francisco, D.C., this kind gentleman simply wished us safe travels, said he hoped he could visit our country one day, and waved goodbye. No money, no request for tip, nothing. And so we found ourselves on a 3-hour tuk-tuk tour of Bangkok for about $3.

We discovered a 32-meter tall Buddha at Wat Intharawihan. Glass and gold make up the statue, which is situated in the middle of a neighborhood. No tourists, yet one of the 6 largest Buddha images in Thailand.

After experiencing the "Big Buddha", our driver took us to another neighborhood temple. We arrived just just before noon and the monks were seated within the temple cafeteria. As the only tourists in the entire complex, we walked respectfully around the temple without taking any photos. A man noticed us (no surprise there) and welcomed us in nearly perfect English, asking us how we were enjoying the temple. He showed us how to properly acknowledge the images of Buddha, taught us that the day of the week on which you are born is very important in Buddhism. Different images of Buddha are associated with different days of the week. Visit this page to see what image is associated with your birthday.

We drove on to a secluded part of town where the luxury textiles create suits for famous lines. Only open one week of the year, we were either scammed or found the greatest deal of our lives. The jury remains out- no packages have arrived yet, 3-4 weeks before being shipped- but we were fitted for two cashmere coats, a suit, two tailored shirts and 4 ties. 

"We'll just take this measureme- oh! I see where you have your problem."
We went on to the Grand Palace, once home to the royal family and government. Now just a historical and ceremonial location, strict dress code is mandatory. I was wearing shorts, as you can see in the above photos, and was required pants. For 200 THB ($6), I was able to secure a pair of pants and shield the holy grounds from my sensuous appendages. For the record, Afsi needed to wrap her shawl around her becoming figure to prevent any monks from throwing away their vows.

Wat Phrakaew, within the walls of the Grand Palace
The Grand Palace certainly was impressive, but the cost and the crowds contrasted our neighborhood temple visits significantly. We witnessed one man refuse to leave his sandals at the door (very disrespectful, and posted all around the building) and another woman photographing within the sanctum, ignoring requests from signs and guards to put her camera away. Both indignant tourists were arguing in the temple as we left, as if it was the guard's fault for intruding on their vacation.

Still on day 1, we hailed another tuk-tuk to the world famous Wat Pho: home to the Reclining Buddha. I had seen photos, read reviews and seen video of the Reclining Buddha, but nothing really prepares the eyes for the massive golden image of Buddha on his side.

We walked toward the docks after leaving Wat Pho and came across a fish market with shops and vendors selling hot Thai cuisine on  patio furniture, underneath colorful tarpaulin roofs. It was cluttered, smelly, bright, steamy- and absolutely perfect. We came to Thailand to escape the normal and this felt delightfully unique. We ordered something, I can't remember what I had, enjoyed a cold Thai beer and finally soaked it all in.

Next to the market, along our walk back to the hostel, we walked through an amulet market. Trinkets by the thousands: portable phones, watches, sunglasses and Buddha miniatures and of course the unmentionable fertility amulets. We were almost back to the hostel when we noticed that the streets were completely free of cars and the sidewalks were full of people. Police blocked off all the cross streets and were barking reprimands at the aimless pedestrians attempting to cross. We paused and waited, wondering if this was a result of the protests or if something exciting was happening. A pristine red Mercedes-Benz flies by, followed by about 2 dozen exactly like it. Police escorts on motorcycles and in SUVs peppered the convoy and through the windows we could see the white uniforms of the Thai royal military. The convoy took several minutes to drive by and then the roads were opened up.

Our bags were still safe at the hostel and we managed to hail a cab in our back alley to take us to our next hotel in the middle of the financial sector, Sukhumvit. Bangkok at night is bright and full of lights and, thanks to heavy traffic, we had time to scope out the shops and noticed a significant difference from the area from our afternoon. This side of town was far more modern, with luxury shopping and more western restaurants. Cab arrived at the hotel and we settled in before heading to an incredible little Thai restaurant for dinner. I think we were both proud to have accomplished so much during our first day.