A Quick Stop in Bangkok

Georgina and I stopped in Bangkok for a day before I continued on alone to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. We intended to go on a foodie walking tour Peter (from Luang Prabang) had recommended, but a typhoon was coming through the east of the region and we got rained out. So we went to the Dusit Thani Hotel and consoled ourselves with some tea.


During the Wet Season…It Rains

Yes, I know that’s rather a “duh” statement, but nevertheless it must be said. After all, it messed up my plans to visit temples on Friday, since it poured rather than simply rained. The hotel suggested I head to the MBK Shopping Center, and gave me a ride in the hotel tuk-tuk to the BTS station. I wasn’t in the mood to shop (or to carry any purchases around for two months when I was going to return to Bangkok), but I had heard that it had a great food court with essentially street food in a more sanitary environment than the street. (I really want to try some street food but most of the places I’ve seen so far look to have left out the food for a while in the heat.)

The food court really is great, with food from all over Thailand as well as some Chinese and Vietnamese options. (All this without even venturing to the floor below’s touted international food booths.) I put 200 baht on a food card and bought pad thai with glass noodles and mango with sticky rice – and still had money left over at the refund counter! The food was good and cheap enough that I actually went back the next day for some coconut milk curry chicken from southern Thailand.

Pad Thai with glass noodles

Pad Thai with glass noodles

MBK reminded me of the shopping center in Irkutsk – more little booths than shops. It may be a good place to find a tailor, since I saw several. There’s a movie theater there too, and I debated going to see a movie that afternoon. Instead I opted for some Thai massage at the hotel followed by blogging and figuring out my itinerary for the following week or so.

Thai massage is very different from the massages I’ve had in the US. They move your legs and arms all over to stretch them – I haven’t had such good turn out since I did ballet!

The next day, we had sun in the morning, so I hastened to the river to go temple touring while it lasted. I headed first to Wat Pho, home of the Temple of the Reclining Buddha as well as numerous of those bell-shaped structures that I now have learned are called chedi. The chedi were so ornate, it almost felt like being inside a box of cloisonné bells. The Reclining Buddha is enormous – 46 meters, if I remember correctly. It’s also easily the most touristy part of the complex.

After thoroughly exploring the complex, I headed to the ferry that crossed between Wat Pho and Wat Arun. It’s smaller than the Chao Phraya tourist boat and we felt the water’s choppiness much more. We made it across and I headed through the hawkers to the (what looks to me) Khmer-style Temple of the Dawn or Wat Arun. The heat was getting to me pretty badly, so I decided not to climb the ladder-like stairs, but I got my fill of the view from below.

My Hundredth Post Is from Bangkok

These demons look sad to be holding up the building

These demons look sad to be holding up the building

Can’t believe it, but I’m at post number 100! Thanks to everyone who has been reading along as I go on this journey!

Thursday was my first full day in Bangkok, so I felt that I should celebrate by heading to some of the main cannot-miss attractions. There are several of them, but I decided on the Grand Palace as the first. The Grand Palace complex includes the temple complex that houses the Emerald Buddha, so I visited that first. Not that I had much of a choice – the entrance line funnels the mobs into the temple complex as the first point of entry.

I had been worried that heading over to the Grand Palace might be difficult by public transportation, but in fact it’s quite simple. You take the BTS Skytrain to the Saphan Taksin stop by the river, get out and head to the pier following the signs for the Chao Phraya Express Boat. Buy your ticket for this tourist boat run by the transit company (it’s quite affordable) and simply wait for the boat to appear. The Grand Palace is “pier number nine”, so I got to see a bit of the sights of Bangkok from the river on the way. The tourist boats have a guide on each who points out sights. Some are more successfully understood than others, and not just due to the varying levels of accents. The varying microphone quality can’t be easy for them to work with.

First glimpse of the river in Bangkok

First glimpse of the river in Bangkok

The first pier you pass is the Oriental Pier, next to the famed (and pricey) Oriental Hotel that Conrad and Somerset Maugham stayed at, amongst other famous writers. Depending on the state of my finances when I return to Bangkok before heading home, I might go have high tea in the Author’s Wing, the original old building of the hotel. (There are a couple of modern additions that may add to the quality of the rooms but certainly detract from the quality of the ambiance, at least from the river view.) Of course, I’m not sure that I have dressy enough clothes for that – I’m rather one of the hoi polloi right now.

Taking the boat gives you a chance to appreciate the river, seeing sights you otherwise couldn’t see (at least not without a long bus ride). I enjoyed everything except getting river water in my face – it’s not exactly the cleanest water, although I did see living things in it, surprisingly (a crane or similar bird).

Appealing color, don't you think?

Appealing color, don’t you think?

We passed a number of colorful longtail boats. I think these are the boats which go on the canal tours, which sound like fun.

We made it to the pier and exited through a market with some incredible looking street food (and I mean “incredible” in multiple ways – I’m not sure that I’d want to eat all or even most of it, but the variety was astounding!) Once you exit through the market, you can see a great big, white wall that surrounds the palace. Taking our lives in our hands, we crossed. (I say “we” here because I always try to cross with a tour group. They hold up traffic so nicely, you see!) Signs posted along the wall warn of the scams of “wily strangers”. Apparently it’s quite common for someone to try to tell you the site is closed for the day and then to take you on either a gem selling scam or simply a shopping-and-the-driver-gets-commissions scam.

With all the tour groups around, I didn’t notice any wily strangers. I did manage to get into the site, despite the mobs of people.

Just a hint of the mob at the Grand Palace...

Just a hint of the mob at the Grand Palace…

The entrance is stunning, surrounded by these two-storey high statues of what I assume are some kind of guardian.

I wandered through the temple complex, seeing the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The Buddha is jade, I believe, not really emerald, and spent some time in its history in Laos when Thailand had a king of Laotian origin who returned to Laos. From my guidebook reading, I think the Laotians are still quite bitter the Thais took it back, so I may hear some more of the tale from a Laotian part of view when I get there.

The heat and humidity were pretty bad, so I was happy to take advantage of a stand selling actual mango juice (as opposed to mango nectar), which I haven’t had in years.

Real mango juice, not mango nectar!

Real mango juice, not mango nectar!

I then wandered through the Grand Palace courtyard, admiring various buildings.

It was starting to drizzle towards the end, so I popped into the Queen Sirikit Textile Museum, which is also part of the Grand Palace complex. There are some beautiful examples of Thai traditional dress in there. Apparently “modern traditional dress” was invented by the queen and her advisors in the late 1950s in preparation for the royal State visit to Europe and the US in 1960. Thai dress became heavily influenced by Western clothing in the 19th century, so traditional court dress no longer existed.

I spent a long time in the palace complex and museums, so was more than ready for lunch when I exited. I decided to head to the National Museum, which I wanted to see and which was supposed to have a decent restaurant. I had my first real Thai meal for the whopping price of 45 baht ($1.50)!

First Thai food. Mmm chili!

First Thai food. Mmm chili!

I then wandered around the museum, which was actually free because the 19th was apparently national museum day!

The National Museum is this really interesting hodgepodge of items, from a former queen’s dollhouse to Buddhas from the Sukhothai period to ornate bookcases and a life-sized model elephant. It was a great way to kill the rest of the afternoon.

Beware of Wily Strangers: Bangkok

This sign greeted me as I walked along the perimeter wall around the Grand Palace complex in Bangkok yesterday. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Monday night, I set out for Southeast Asia. First stop, Bangkok, arriving Wednesday morning since I got to cross the international date line!

I was flying Etihad Airlines, the official airline of the UAE, and had no idea what to expect since online reviews were so split. I found the flight from Washington, DC to Abu Dhabi to have exceptional service. (The flight attendants actually kept the coach bathroom clean and with the end of the roll of toilet paper folded into a little triangle, if you can believe it!) Best yet was the fact that the back of the plane was empty – a woman I started chatting with while boarding gave me the heads-up that I should try to move to the back, and I am very grateful for the advice. I ended up sitting by myself in a middle three-seater row, which meant that I could lie down and actually…sleep! It’s amazing what sleeping on a plane will do for preventing jet lag. The flight from Abu Dhabi to Bangkok was more crowded, so not as comfortable. Oh well, I got to catch up on the latest Star Trek movie, which I had been wanting to see for a while, so all was not lost!

Bangkok’s airport is fairly confusing, with multiple immigration entry points. Inexplicably we got herded to number 4, although our baggage was coming in on a carousel closer to a different immigration line. I went through pretty quickly, picked up my bags, and headed out to the taxi line. The same lady who had given me such good advice on moving to the back of the plane recommended that I take a taxi instead of the Airport Express train, since a cab wouldn’t cost much more and with the train I’d need to change multiple times and go up and down stairs. Well, people can’t always be right! I rather regret not taking the train in, despite the stairs, since I have a backpack to make stairs easy. (I’ve noticed in the couple of days I’ve been here in Bangkok that it doesn’t seem very accessible – the BTS Skytrain is very convenient, but I haven’t seen any elevators.) The nice lady was wrong about a taxi being cheap, perhaps because she inexplicably didn’t account for the traffic jams that Bangkok is notorious for. My cab from the airport cost almost $40, pretty steep in a country where so much is so very cheap.

I must admit that when I got into the cab, I was pretty sure I was getting scammed. My driver insisted on taking the paper ticket that they had given me when they assigned me a cab, and I thought that was the one piece of paper that was the rider’s proof of destination in order to prevent a scam. I sat there worried – and then philosophical – that I was going to be scammed, but I think I overreacted. I don’t know whether my driver took the most direct route or not, but I rather think he did. He pointed out where the airport train went. He told me to take it going back, because it would be much faster and cheaper. And he didn’t charge me the full, official airport charge of 50 baht, either. He seemed very surprised and grateful when I then gave him a 100 baht tip (about 10%).

I’m staying at the Courtyard Marriott since I have some Marriott points left (surprisingly, after using them all over the world this year!). I know it’s not the most atmospheric Thai hotel, but it’s very nice and just what I need to get over any jet lag and get acclimatized. It’s actually rather amusing being at breakfast and seeing the business-type folks in the business lounge, and knowing that I don’t have to work. And fresh guava juice at breakfast is a definite plus!

The hotel let me check in very early, so I spent a little time researching what I wanted to do on Wednesday (nothing too strenuous!) and then headed out. Since I’m only a few blocks from the Erawan Shrine, I headed there first. It’s a shrine on the street corner by the (extremely) high class Erawan Shopping Center. The shrine was built to reverse bad karma at the Erawan Hotel (and it’s apparently worked). A lot of people come to pray at the Hindu shrine, and there are Thai dancers there who are hired by the devout who have had a prayer answered. I sat for a little while, taking in the incense, the dancers and the devout, before moving on.

The devout in front of the Erawan Shrine, Bangkok

The devout in front of the Erawan Shrine, Bangkok

Incense at the Erawan Shrine

Incense at the Erawan Shrine

Next up was a search for an ATM, which I found in a mall. I checked the Erawan Mall first. It’s the first time I’ve seen as exclusive as Givenchy in a mall! However, no luck on an ATM, so I moved on to the one across the street, where I had better success.

I then went to the Jim Thompson House Museum. Jim Thompson was an American who first came to Thailand in WWII in his position with the OSS. He loved it so much that he moved here after the war, becoming fascinated in Thai handmade silk. He founded a business to bring Thai silks to the West – Jim Thompson Silk is now one of the best known names in the industry. As I learned during the tour of his house, his silks were used for the costumes in The King and I. I guess once Hollywood knows you, the rest of the world does, too!

Tours leave every 20 minutes or so, so I wandered around the garden for a little while and then sat on a bench to wait. The heat and, more importantly, the humidity, are taking some getting used to! The museum consists of his house (seven traditional Thai houses knocked together to form one big, semi-traditional house) along with a couple of smaller houses and his garden. Mr. Thompson collected beautiful Thai antiques, so I got to see numerous Buddha statues, some beautiful porcelain, and the houses themselves, made of beautiful dark wood. Thai houses are traditionally on stilts to avoid flooding and bases are wider than the tops of the houses to give better structural support.

After Jim Thompson’s House Museum, I was ready to head back to the air conditioning of the hotel. I was planning to pack in a full tourist day on Thursday, heading out to the Grand Palace (and being told to beware of wily strangers). And now that you’re hooked, I’ll tell you more tomorrow. See, I can be wily, too.