Thailand, Part Three: Bangkok

A one hour flight from Chiang Mai to Bangkok got us to the capital city in the late morning and we wasted no time in exploring.  After getting settled in our hotel and grabbing a quick lunch, we set off to explore our hotel’s neighborhood of Sukhumivit – known to be a popular area for expats and teeming with shopping malls, hotels, and restaurants.

We chose this particular area and hotel due to its proximity to both the Skytrain and subway system.  Accustomed to the intricate maze of public transportation in NYC, I figured Mr. S and I would easily take to Bangkok’s more modern Skytrain and subways.  And we did.  Eventually.  Once we figured out how to pay.

To purchase tickets for the Skytrain, one must know which stop they are heading to.  That was easy enough, so Mr. S and I queued up for the ticket machine.  “Notes and coins” it said.  Good, because we had no coins.  Not good, because the machine kept spitting out our 100 baht bill.  We decided perhaps it would be better to wait in the line for the man behind the window.  When it was our turn, we played a short game of charades to indicate that we’d like two tickets to our destination.  We knew our fare would be a total of 84 baht so we handed the smiling man our 100 baht bill and he returned to us a handful of coins, which we assumed was our change of 16 baht.  We didn’t get tickets, but we presumed that since we paid the man directly, we could just enter through the side handicap gate attached to his little window.  So off we went, boarded the train, arrived at our destination, got off the train, and then…couldn’t exit the train station.  We looked to others around us for a clue and everyone had a ticket to put into the turnstile which would then open.  But we had no tickets.  We weren’t given tickets.  A very polite officer saw our confused faces, smiled at us, then wordlessly escorted us to the station’s window.  Again, the game of charades, except this time we didn’t know how to mime “We paid already but we didn’t get tickets.” In her broken English (and always, everyone, with a kind smile), the attendant said, “You pay now.”

“No, no we paid already.  We paid 100 baht and got change back, but no tickets,” I protested.  After fruitless miming and hand signals, I decided to pull out the coins we received as evidence of my claim.  Mr. S says he figured it out before I did…but I didn’t realize our faux pas until I saw that it required both of my hands to hold all the change I pulled from my wallet…  The first man in the window didn’t give us 16 baht in change.  He gave us 100 baht in coins so we could go back to the “Coins only” machine.  Ohhhhhh….. “Ok, yes, we pay now.”

The second time we had to take the Skytrain, Mr. S and I were ready.  Again, we had no coins (the “Notes and coins” machine was broken and just the “Coins only” machines were available).  We tagged teamed to cut down on our wait time so I stood on the machine line while Mr. S lined up at the window to get change.  We thought we were so smart, so Bangkok Skytrain savvy until Mr. S returned to me from the window with two tickets and 16 baht in change in his hands.  We’ll never know the secret to Skytrain success, but the moral of the story is to always have a ticket and always count your change.

So the Skytrain took us to the meeting spot of our first activity in Bangkok –  a guided night tuk tuk tour,  visiting some of the city’s landmarks via the infamous motorcycle tuk tuk.  Stops included  Klong San night market (to sample some street food), Wat Prayoon (where we got a glimpse of some monks in training), the Giant Swing, Wat Pho’s grounds, the 24 hour flower market, dinner at a local Pad Thai restaurant, and finally ending in Chinatown for dessert.  From living in NYC, I know that tourist attractions look and feel very different in the night time vs. the day time, so even though we didn’t have full access to some of the temples, it was still a really cool experience to be able to wander the grounds at night.

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Our view from our tuk tuk and some of our tour group friends up ahead.

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Wat Prayoon

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The flower market, open 24 hours a day.

The next day was a Sunday and we ventured to the legendary Chatuchak Weekend Market.  Anything and everything can be found for sale here: clothes, furniture, home décor, motorcycles, groceries, and even pets.

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Bargaining is wholly expected, but unfortunately the art of negotiation is not one Mr. S and I have mastered.  I got overexcited at the sight of mangosteen for sale (rare since the fruit was not in season while we were there) and was over eager to pay whatever the price was.

“How much?”

“300 baht but –“

“Ok, yes, 300 baht,” I interrupted her while pulling out my wallet.

“…but I give you for 250 baht.”

“Oh. Ok. Great!”

As you can see, we were so bad at haggling that the sellers were actually negotiating with themselves on our behalf.

My overpriced mangosteen. Still delicious.

The following day we arranged for a tour of the floating market and Grand Palace.  Our guide Nadia and driver Mr. A picked us up bright and early from our hotel.  The early call time was necessary since the floating market is about a one to two hour drive outside of Bangkok (depending on the traffic).  But first, we made a stop at the Maeklong train market.  The market is literally set up on top of active train tracks and the vendors who sell here are quite used to the train passing through six times a day.  Folding up their canopies and getting out of the train’s way are done at a leisurely pace even when the approaching train is within sight. Produce and other wares are arranged in such a way that the train can pass right over them.  Once it’s through to the station, the vendors emerge, canopies are re-erected, and business continues as usual.

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At the Damnoen Saduak floating market, we boarded a row boat to navigate the canal, lined with merchants and teeming with vendor boats selling fruit and souvenirs.  If we showed interest in any of the merchandise, the seller would use a long hook to pull our boat over to his stall and try to negotiate a price.

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After a tour of the market and the surrounding canals, we disembarked our row boat and made our way to the noodle boat for lunch.  According to our guide, this woman makes a very good living making only two dishes – noodles or noodles with soup – from her boat in the water.

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Our last stop of the day was to be the Grand Palace, but when Nadia heard that we couldn’t see the golden reclining Buddha when we visited Wat Pho on the night tuk tuk tour, she offered to take us quickly inside so as not to miss the famous Bangkok landmark.

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Prior to visiting Thailand, I didn’t know very much about the Buddhist culture/religion.  Mr. S and I both grew up Catholic and I don’t have many (if any) Buddhist friends, so what I knew of karma, reincarnation, and nirvana was mostly the result of what I saw/heard on TV and movies.  The concepts are so different to Catholicism that I couldn’t help my curiosity and Nadia was more than happy to field all my burning questions during our lunch stop.

  • How many times does someone go through reincarnation? Nadia said the answer is unknown, but one is reincarnated until he/she reaches the state of nirvana – ultimate goodness.  The way to attain nirvana is by positive karma (i.e., doing good things in your current life so that you are closer to nirvana in your next life) and meditation.
  • Do you remember your past lives? Nadia said generally no, but she felt that in one of her past lives she might have been a person living in Ayutthaya.   Ayutthaya was the previous capital of Thailand – the king fled to Bangkok in 1767 when Ayutthaya was overtaken by the Burmese.  Nadia often leads tour groups to Ayutthaya (now a UNESCO site) and told us that she always feels a sense of familiarity when she is there.  She also noted the course to become a tour guide was quite rigorous  and only she and another classmate finished the program to graduation.  It always stuck with her that her nation’s history came easily to her when it was not so for the majority of her peers.
  • Do you become reincarnated within the same family? Nadia said it’s possible but not always the case.  She told us of her niece that was born with the same birthmark as Nadia’s deceased grandmother and later, as the child grew up, she showed similar personality traits to the grandmother.  Her family suspects that it’s possible that the child is reincarnated from her grandmother.
  • What would be the worst thing to come back as? She laughed at this one and guessed someone with very bad karma might come back as a dog.  I think Chunk leads a pretty sweet life – eat, sleep, play, sleep, poop, sleep – so I was surprised at her answer, but I guess Thai dogs don’t have such a cushy life as Chunk.

After lunch, it was on to the Grand Palace.  Though they have no legislative power, the royal family is still quite prominent in Thailand and their photos grace many of the public structures in Bangkok.  I learned that Thailand was one of the few (if not the only) smaller Asian country to never come under Western European rule.

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The Grand Palace complex also houses a temple dedicated to the emerald Buddha (who changes his outfit to match the season).

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No pictures allowed of the emerald Buddha, but this is us blessing ourselves with water and lotus flowers before entering the temple.

All the temple grounds we visited were peppered with structures called stupas – memorials in honor of deceased Thai royalty or other important national figures.  And they were all decorated with broken teacups.  Yes, teacups.  Back when Thailand exported goods to China (rice, silk, spices, etc.), the boats returning to Thailand were loaded with Chinese teacups and concrete warrior statues to distribute the weight evenly.  Many of the teacups arrived broken and instead of throwing them away, the king decided to use them to decorate the various stupas.  The warrior statues were also used as decoration around the temple grounds.  Upcycling at its finest!

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Before leaving us, we asked Nadia for some dinner recommendations in our neighborhood and she immediately suggested Cabbages & Condoms just four blocks from our hotel.  We side-eyed at the name, but she promised us they had the best chicken with cashew nuts in Sukhumvit and so we went, expecting to find a dive bar and perhaps a ping pong show.  But no, Cabbages & Condoms was a beautiful and creatively decorated restaurant established by Thailand’s Population and Community Development Association to educate the masses on family planning (there was a major population control issue at the time).  The mission was to make contraception as widely available as vegetables in the market, which is where the restaurant’s name comes from.  To this day, proceeds from the restaurant go towards education and availability of birth control.

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A lantern made from…not cabbages.

As promised, the chicken and cashew nuts was the best we had in Thailand and instead of mints or fruit, we were offered condoms on our way out.

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We didn’t bother to figure out the difference between military size and politician size…we’ll just have to leave it to our imaginations.

Our last day in Bangkok was spent doing some last minute shopping.  Some of my favorites include dried roselle flowers (for making tea), silk robes (maybe I’ll start a collection to rival my mother’s), stationery and pens (the stationery section of an Asian department store is my heaven), poo-poo paper prints (on paper made from elephant dung), and massage hooks.  These things are amazing and allow me to get to my favorite pressure points all by myself!

After our twelve day tour of Thailand, Mr. S and I were sad to go, but ready to come home.  I’d classify our first long haul vacation together a success and I hope it’s just the beginning of many more adventures exploring the rest of the world together.  Thailand is a beautiful country with the warmest and friendliest people I’ve come across.  We had so many experiences there that left us saying, “I can’t believe we just did/saw that!!”  I highly, highly recommend a visit!

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