While our SFO-Hong Kong flights were on Singapore Airlines (which, by the way, had wonderful service and amenities), we went the budget route for our in-Asia flights and flew Air Asia. The flight from Hong Kong to Bangkok is a relatively short one (especially compared to the trans-Pacific flight we’d taken less than a week before), and we knew the second we stepped off the plane that we were in for a whole new experience– the heat and humidity crept into the cracks between the plane and the jetway, and we new we were in for an adventure as we rode through the streets of Bangkok in our mercifully air-conditioned van. (Speaking of heat and humidity, let’s hear it for the ice-cold washcloths that accompanied our welcome drinks in the hotel lobby. Well-played, Thailand!)
As we had arrived mid-afternoon on Sunday, we knew we only had a few hours to hit the Chatuchak market. The subway and SkyTrain are heavily air-conditioned (yes, I’m going to be harping on climate control throughout these accounts), so the trip wasn’t bad– and when we arrived, we were met with a cacophony of people, food, and merchandise ready to be haggled over. Oh, the haggling. It’s expected, and definitely approaches the level of sport– and we got used to it after a couple exchanges. As we sat in the midst of the market sipping Singhas, the sense of being very, very far from home was particularly acute (and pretty wonderful).
Our first night was spent exploring Chinatown, which was deep in the throes of New Year celebrations. We stopped for a dinner of fish ball soup that cost roughly $3, stood in a crowd that was awaiting the arrival of a princess (who never materialized, or at least didn’t until well after we left), and staved off the late evening heat with Fanta (him) and strawberry-flavored street ice cream (me). There was, of course, also a wat involved.
Over the course of our stay in Bangkok, we got to explore many of the wats that can be found on what seemed like every other block, from the Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha (it’s made of jade, don’t be fooled) to Wat Arun and Wat Pho– there was even a smaller wat right next to our hotel. Our first full day was spent exploring Wat Pho and the Grand Palace, which are relatively near each other. Wat Pho is home to an enormous reclining Buddha, the scope of which is hard to convey, even photograpically (though we obviously tried). Because it was the first wat we visited on the trip, we took an especially long time lingering over every feature of each building, referring constantly to our guidebook to make sure we didn’t miss anything.
Even though the Grand Palace isn’t a royal residence anymore, it’s hugely popular and crowded (I’d imagine throughout the year, but definitely when we visited), and for good reason. Once you’ve made your way beyond the pristine, forbidding outer walls– and ensured that you’re dressed “politely” (there are garments for rent if you’re not)– there is a lot to see. And most of it, for lack of adequate adjectives, is pretty crazy-looking.
And of course, once we were done exploring, we couldn’t resist a tuk tuk ride. What they lacked in air-conditioning, they more than made up with harrowing traffic maneuvers. Plus, where else do you get to bargain so extensively for transportation? (I mean, probably plenty of places, but we haven’t visited very many of them.)
As cities sometimes tend to do, Bangkok had developed on the banks of a river (the Chao Phraya), which we crossed via boat a couple times (this was necessary, or at least most convenient, when we wanted to visit sites along the river, like Wat Arun). In the midst of this city teeming with people, cars, buses, and tuk tuks, the river wasn’t exactly an oasis of calm; boats from teeny to, well, mid-size zipped up and down, depositing passengers from one side to another. We took a boat across the river to Wat Arun on our second full day, pausing to make friends with a stray cat (not the only one spotted on the trip, of course, but one of the few that was amenable to my advances) and gawk at other tourists paying to put on traditional Thai garb for photos (think Old West photography, but a different culture/period) before we entered the wat and climbed our way to the top. The stairs are steep, so we felt as though we truly earned the views from the top (we signed the fabric wrapped around the uppermost prang to prove we’d been there).
Later that day, we headed to the Dusit district, where the royal family still live, and explored Dusit Park (home of the Vimanmek Mansion and a wonderfully air conditioned Royal Elephant Museum) and Zoo. The zoo was full of many sleeping animals, and was where we encountered our first up-close elephants– they seemed a little agitated (and we felt pretty awful for them) at being basically chained to the ground, but also hustled us out of the long beans we bought to feed them in record time (the elephants we met in Chiang Mai seemed much happier). It’s interesting to observe different cultural behaviors and attitudes at places like zoos and museums (focuses on things like conservation and the like definitely vary by region and majority culture of the visitors)– and was most interesting as we watched a woman sneak into a barricaded area and offer a yogurt cup (?) to a hippopotamus with its jaws agape. I guess it isn’t the animals who put up those “Do Not Feed the Animals” signs, but damn.
Our final day in Bangkok wouldn’t be a long one, but we did have time to take in the Thai National Museum, which is home to some of the earliest examples of written Thai (think the Rosetta Stone, but less Greek and hieroglyphics), miniature dioramas of historic battles (mostly with the Burmese), and some pretty beautiful grounds (you know, if you’re into completely beautiful buildings embellished with gold and elaborately carved wood).
Stuffed to the gills with as much Bangkok as we could pack into fewer than 100 hours, we headed off to Chiang Mai– the “jewel of the North” that would be less frenetic but no less awe-inspiring than the city we’d just left.
P.S. If you’re not all Bangkok-photo-ed out, you can find all the pictures here.