a minute in thai-me: bangkok photo journal
New year, same terrible jokes! Some things never change. But Thai-related puns are surprisingly difficult to come by. If you have a better one, let me know in the comments :). I always use the first stupid title I can think of as a placeholder semi-ironically, and then 90% of the time I end up keeping it.
As part of a desperate attempt to cram as much travel as I could into six months, I booked a weekend trip to Thailand. I've been to Thailand twice before, once to Bangkok in 2011 (that's where this photo is from, since I didn't have a blog back then) and last summer to Phuket. But I quickly fell in love with it from my first visit, and it's one of my favorite countries; some of my best and most vivid memories are of celebrating the New Year with locals in the heart of Bangkok, stopping to eat fruit roadside in Kanchanaburi, and visiting a floating market in Ayutthaya, so I was eager to go back. And it's also a lot different traveling by yourself.
I had a set itinerary: Amphawa Floating Market, Wat Arun, and the Khaosan Night Market. I like having itineraries; I don't always use them, necessarily, but I like having one. It makes me anxious to wake up and have little to no idea what I'm doing, because I feel like I'm wasting valuable time. Especially when you have less than two full days to see everything you want.
I take a plane after to Bangkok. It's absurdly easy to travel between countries in Southeast Asia. Almost too easy. And I am always suspicious of things that are too easy. But that's it: just hop on, hop off, and I am in Thailand.
First mission: Get a SIM card. Another thing I'm amazed by. Like in Malaysia, you just hand the people your phone and $3, and you've got a new phone number and a 2GB data plan.
Second mission: Get to the hostel. Which is more difficult than I had expected. I call an Uber because I don't want to deal with the taxi stand and wait outside. There's one guy controlling the traffic with a whistle. Of the shrill, ear-splitting, headache-inducing variety. I'm pretty sure he could accomplish the same sound with half the amount of effort. If I hear it again I may murder someone.
My Uber is dumb. It keeps turning around and going the other way, and I cancel it out of frustration. But I'm approached by a girl named Heidi who seems just as lost as I am; we meet James, who already has a taxi coupon in hand, and the three of us split a cab to our respective hostels. I learn that Heidi was born in Senegal, lived in France for most of her life, and just finished a six-month internship with the UN in Cambodia assisting in the trial of Khmer Rouge leaders responsible for the Cambodian genocide of 1975. How rad is that? I feel as though I have contributed absolutely nothing to society in comparison. And James is a standup comedian living in London, and he's spent the past five weeks backpacking around Southeast Asia, which is also pretty cool.
This is why I love traveling. The people you meet tend to be very interesting and adventurous. Want to wake up at 5 am to hike up a mountain? They're probably down. And people who are well-traveled always have interesting stories to tell.
There are pictures of the Thai king everywhere. He passed away back in October after an astonishing 66-year reign. I remember seeing videos of people mourning hysterically right after it happened. My friend observed that grief is a very public thing in Asia; it's a demonstration of respect. Following his death, festivities were suspended. Bright colors, laughing loudly, and drinking in public were banned for a month. And while now Bangkok is back to its lively self, the pictures will remain up for a full year for people to pay their respects.
I check into the hostel, Matchbook Bangkok, which is one of those hip "designer concept hostels" designed for millennial travelers (I splurged and went for the one that was $12/a night). I love living in this era, because travel is so accessible, and hostels are no longer the grimy places they used to be. My "room" is a little, cozy bed capsule, with its own TV and lights system, a shelf, and a safe for all of your belongings.
I'm so tired. Why am I so tired?! I've never understood why travel is so exhausting when most of the time you're in a sedentary state.
Oh. It's 1:30 am, which means 2:30 am Singapore time. That's why.
But I force myself to go out and walk around, because I want to see what the night life is like. I stop at Family Mart first, because I love Asian convenience stores, and resist buying all of the tiny little packets of skin serums and face masks. They have all kinds of interesting snacks, and I buy purple sweet potato chips and a peach bun.
There are all these little bars and food carts outside. Some of the "bars" are literally just a wooden stand with 20 bottles of liquor sitting behind them, with people talking and drinking on little wooden barstools outside.
I stop at a food cart right outside my hostel, and the guy doesn't speak English so I ask him what he has. He indicates chicken and rice, so I say okay. It's nowhere near as good as chicken rice in Singapore (nothing is as good as chicken rice in Singapore) but it is tasty and I'm starving.
I meet two European guys, Lazslo from Budapest and Mitch from Vienna, who are looking for late-night food too. We eat together and drink beer and discuss politics, because what else? They're very funny, even if they are advocates for Communism and insist that our president is "a good guy."
"Money doesn't motivate him anymore," Lazslo says. "Now he just wants to do what he sees is right for the country, to do the job."
"There's a difference between doing it and doing it well," I argue.
"True," he agrees. But he is doing what he thinks is best. Communism was better for my family. The regime ended when I was six and I remember waiting at a crossing for an hour as the Russian tanks left. But now my parents cannot take vacations without me supporting them."
"But he's not a Communist! He's a populist," I remind him.
He shrugs. "If the people don't like him, they'll shoot him in two years."
They work on a five-star (six, Mitch corrects me) river cruise ship in Europe, and this is their first time and Asia. They complain about the prices, because apparently you can get beer is only a Euro and a half in Hungary, but it sounds insane to me because Asia is so cheap compared to the States. Now I really want to visit Hungary (not for the beer, although for a Euro and a half, why not?). Europe is the next part of my bucket list; I haven't traveled there since 2007.
The food cart guy thinks I am a local. A conversation I have at least once every time I go to Thailand:
Local: [Something in Thai]
Me: Sorry, I don't speak Thai
Local: [Inquisitive look] Where are you from?
Local: Ahh, American! You look Thai
At this point I'm convinced I was born Thai. And considering I look like neither of them, my parents have some explaining to do.
"So where is your family from?" Mitch asks me. "New York," I say, because that's the standard answer I always give, in order to make the "But where are you really from?" exchange all that much more uncomfortable. But it occurs to me that Europeans probably don't think of microaggressions the same way. Or even know what microaggressions are, for that matter. "I'm full Chinese," I tell him.
"But you're American?"
"But your great-grandparents are from China."
"So you are Communist."
"Y—wait what? I mean...if you count 50 years ago, then maybe..."
"Somewhere in your heart there is a little guy waving a Russian flag," he jokes.
We talk until 4 am, and we make a plan to meet outside 7-11 tomorrow to go to a temple, and maybe the Grand Palace. And I finally sleep.
We meet outside 7-11 as planned. This is what it used to be like before cell phones, when you have no way of contacting the other party.
We eat lunch at this little place tucked away in an alley. They promise that the food is very authentic, but it's much too clean and new and expensive (relative to most food places). But it is good.
I order pad thai and an iced coffee. I adore Thai coffee. In fact, Thailand is the only place where I actually like the coffee (#firstworldproblems).
I introduce them to Uber, which they proclaim "amazing!", and we take one to Wat Arun, the Temple of the Dawn. I haven't been here since 2011, when it was undergoing restoration, and my friend and I wrote our names on the ribbons decorating the construction scaffolding.
An hour later, we arrive. Incredibly, it's still undergoing restoration; it is a process, I suppose. But it's still as stunning as ever, all creamy white spires studded with bits of colorful glass, Chinese porcelain pieces, and seashells. It's named after the Hindu god Aruna, a personification of the rising sun, for the way the first light of dawn illuminates the white surface of the temple.
The tallest spire (70 feet high!) is under construction, so we can't go up to it, but there are dozens of workers perched on the scaffolding and carefully repairing it by hand. It overlooks the Chao Praya river, and we carefully climb up the steep steps to see it.
One of the most striking things is just standing in the shadows of these massive temples and looking up to the sky, the shining white spires towering over you and sparkling in the afternoon sun. It makes you feel so tiny. I always wonder how long it takes to build these things.
It's absurdly hot out, so we seek shelter inside the temples. I always love temples, but Buddhist ones in particular interest me. They're always so beautiful—so colorful and richly-decorated. But this in itself strikes me as a bit contradictory, because one of the tenets of traditional Buddhism is living simply and modestly, existing without desire or ego. The monks themselves dress in simple cotton robes and as far as I know dedicate their entire lives just to praying and improving themselves spiritually.
I always wonder what the actual Buddha would think about people praying to him (he never claimed to be a god, and I'm pretty sure he advocated spirituality, not religion) and erecting gold-and-jewel encrusted temples like this in his honor. I wonder the same thing about other gods, too.
I really enjoy watching people pray. Admittedly, that sounds a bit creepy. But I've noticed that in European and Asian countries, where religion is more integrated into their lifestyles, praying is a very conscious act, rather than a quick and almost thoughtless recitation prior to a meal, like I've seen a lot of people do. But here, it's something that they actually take time out of their day for, something they actually commit to. It's very admirable.
One of my most memorable experiences while traveling was visiting the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, and hearing one of the afternoon calls to prayer. We were looking at rugs and hand-painted ceramics, when it sounded over the loudspeaker. Almost immediately, a good majority of the people in the bazaar stopped in their tracks and knelt down to pray.
People in other parts of the world consider time a resource, but not in the same, sometimes self-important way we do. That's why it doesn't really matter if you're not exactly on time in Europe or most parts of Asia (with the exception of Singapore and Japan). It's the quality of the time, not the quantity. People don't feel the need to be busy all the time. And that's why prioritizing prayer five times a day is worth taking the time to do.
But they are wildly beautiful. I can't imagine the effort that goes into creating patterns and designs like this. They're very traditional, but in a whimsical kind of way.
We get blessed by a monk, and each receive a bracelet. I'm not quite sure what it does but I can only assume it's some sort of good luck charm.
We buy fresh wax apples and mangoes from a fruit-seller in the courtyard, and take a ferry across the river, to the Grand Palace.
Unfortunately, it's closed now, so we go to Wat Pho instead, the temple with the massive reclining gold Buddha. It's one of the largest temple complexes in the city, famous for the 150 foot-long Buddha lying on its side in the main temple, and the colorful pyramid-like chedi dotting the courtyards.
We take off our shoes and shuffle along, admiring the painted walls, while people buy baskets of coins to drop into the bronze bowls lining the perimeter of the temple, dropping a couple into each bowl as they walk. Apparently Barack Obama was here in 2012, and his note and signature are proudly displayed in a glass case.
That's another crazy thing. Despite all of the insanity of these past couple of months, everyone here is fairly removed from it. There are some people who I'm sure have no idea who Barack Obama is. But considering the fact that there aren't any other signatures in the case, it seems like he's fairly respected by Thai officials, and his visit to Wat Pho is a point of pride for the country. I miss him already.
There's a Thai tour guide speaking rapidly in German to a bunch of Chinese tourists, which stuns me because it's so odd. Mitch recognizes a little bit of it, and explains that the chedi are actually funeral pyres, where the ashes of families are stored.
The sun is beginning to set now, and it bathes the all-white temple in a gorgeous rosy glow, illuminating the spires of the chedi.
After the temple, Mitch and Lazslo insist on going to a rooftop bar, because they say they went to one last night that was really pretty, overlooking the city. By pure luck, we kind of stumble upon one tucked away in an alley, and we take five flights of spiral stairs up to the top.
It's perfect timing, because the sun is low in the sky now, casting an orange halo onto the blackening water. I can see Wat Arun in all its glory across the river, the white spires painted in shades of soft, hazy orange and pink. There are a bunch of people sitting at the bar, chatting and sipping drinks, while the sun dips closer to the horizon.
I order "The River," which I like because it's mostly fruit juice (ha) and it's a pretty blue and green color. It's peach, grapefruit, pineapple, blue curaçao, and some other kinds of fruit, and it's delicious.
We pay for our drinks and decide to take a tuk-tuk to the Khaosan Night Market, which my friend Raashi told me about (she's from Bangkok but lives and works in Singapore). Tuk-tuks are unique to Southeast Asia, I think. I saw some of them scooting around Kuala Lumpur but I was too scared to take them. Because they're terrifying. They're these tiny motorized cart-things that are steered by what looks like bicycle handlebars, but have a fully-functional engine. They go very fast and weave in and out of traffic and there's nothing really stopping you from falling out in the middle of the road because they have no doors or anything.
I never tire of night markets, even though I've been to approximately a million and a half of them, in every country imaginable. But they're always so lively and fun and they always have great food. They want to sit down, so we order from a restaurant for dinner (which was a bit upsetting, considering we were surrounded by so much good street food). But we get to eat and and just watch the crowds go by, a nice break from walking all day. It's a Saturday night, so everyone is drinking and shopping and dancing in the streets. I just like sitting by and soaking it all in, because you can't find anything like it in the U.S.
We get chocolate-and-banana prata, which I've never tried (I like the plain kind too much; I could eat it by the pound).
And just like the night markets in Beijing, they sell things like fried crickets and fried scorpions. My sisters and I once went to a bug festival (not sure why; my family just does these kinds of things) and ate fried mealworms. They were good, and tasted like the garlic salt they'd been cooked with. So I'm never too afraid of stands like these, until I see the cockroaches and then it's game over. I can't even look at them; they're so disgusting. I have a long-standing disagreement with cockroaches (as in I wish they didn't exist), and I don't know why I find them so much worse than other bugs, but I just do.
Our hostels are approximately an hour and a half walk from the night market. "I don't mind walking!" says Lazslo, but that's a hard no for me, so I call another Uber (I like feeling cultured and everything, but to me there is no good excuse to walk an hour and a half at 10 pm).
I buy some face masks and stuff from Family Mart, because I can't resist and they look so fun. We make a plan to meet up again tomorrow, to go to the floating market, and I go to sleep very full and with glowing, poreless skin.
The next day, we take an Uber to the Taling Chan Floating Market (isn't Uber the best invention? I can't believe I never used it until this year). This one is a little bit closer, and it's supposed to be a good place to go because it's surrounded by a street market as well, it's not too crowded, and it's populated with locals as well as tourists.
This looks a little more like the Thailand I remember; a little bit more jungle-y and out of the way. Cities are nice, but they start to feel similar after a while.
We shop around a bit in the regular market, marveling at all of the strange-looking food and produce. The fruit here is so much better here than in Singapore, because it's got a lot of land for things to grow, and much richer soil. Countries like Malaysia and Thailand are known for their fruit.
Then we reach the floating market, which is a long wooden dock where you can walk, with boats floating by.
It's actually very small; it's not as nice as the one in Ayutthaya, but it has the same relaxed vibe and variety of food offerings. Some people eat on the docks, others talk and watch the boats float down the river, or feed fish large chunks of bread. A woman offers me a piece of bread for the fish, and I accept gratefully. I didn't evivren know fish liked bread.
There are some boats with baskets full of brightly-colored fruit and vegetables, but the most impressive ones to me are always the ones with large vats of soup or big metal grills filled with hot coal where they smoke fish and other seafood. All while floating down the river. One woman sells thin, slippery live eels and little turtles. I don't even want to know what they're for.
The three of us split a rockfish, which is only 200 baht or around $5 USD. It's lovely and charred and crusted with salt, and it's been smoking for hours. The woman splits the skin from it right in front of us, and lays it out on a leaf for us. It's really good, but I refuse to touch the intestines (I've had intestine and was not that impressed).
We decide to take a river cruise, which takes about an hour, on one of the long wooden boats. Each one is dressed in a colorful canopy and has a large, exposed engine with a long propeller for steering.
It goes a lot faster than I expected, and almost all of my pictures come out blurry. We zip down the river along with a bunch of drunken European tourists. It's almost exhilarating, that's how fast it's going.
We reach a little canal, where they let us off and we are allowed to wander around for half an hour. I split away from the group and sit by the river. It's absolutely breathaking here. It's quiet, except for the occasional passing boat, and I like watching the glossy water flow past the colorful houses on stilts. Despite the poverty, I can't help thinking that this would be a really nice place to live.
There's also a little courtyard with dogs and roosters running around, and a temple. One of the monks ushers me in. "The paintings were done by a famous French artist over 200 years ago," he explains proudly, indicating the vibrant renderings of Buddha on the walls and ceiling.
They look a little bit out of place in a Buddhist temple, where everything is very delicate: bold black lines and bright colors, almost graffiti-like. He asks me where I'm from, and we have the are-you-Thai-or-not conversation. "Enjoy your visit," he says, bowing to me.
Then it's back to the boat, and we jet down the river again, back to the floating market.
I buy some prata and an iced coffee as a final snack, and then it's time to go.
We take an Uber back to the hostel where I quickly grab all of my stuff, say goodbye to Mitch and Lazslo, and then I'm on my way back to the airport! A very short trip, indeed, but I feel a little bit proud that I managed to do Bangkok in just two days, by myself. It's back to work tomorrow, and then I've got one last trip over Chinese New Year weekend. And then I come home. Time is absolutely flying by. I'm trying to make the most of it that I can.
Keep an eye out for my next photo journal: Phnom Penh and Siem Reap! You can subscribe in the box below to get it delivered hot off the presses to your email :). Catch you in the next one.