Around Bangkok

Trip Start May 16, 2008
Trip End May 26, 2008

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Sunday, May 18, 2008

After a 20 hour flight (which actually went smoothly, no delays or cancellations) we arrived in Bangkok, Thailand. Our accommodations were first rate - stayed at the Millennium Hilton. Modern decor, great food, and, most importantly, awesome A/C. It didn't take long to feel the humidity taking its toll.... my Coloradan blood is way out of its element in the tropics. Woke up to a great breakfast - is that papaya juice in my OJ? - and jumped over the the Chatuchak Markets to get a first hand look at all things Thai.

Shirts? Ties? Food? Laser-engraved wood carvings? Art? You want it - you can find it at these markets. Row after row, aisle after aisle completely packed full of all sorts of random nick-naks. Typical of markets like this most of it was junk but hidden within the stalls were some real gems - cheap gems! The exchange rate is very favorable in Thailand - about 30 baht to 1 dollar when we went - and things are good if your using the USD. To illustrate - here were some typical expenses:

Bottled water: 10 baht = $0.30
Street food - Pad Thai (enough for a full meal): 30 baht = $1
Full body massage (beach in Phuket): 400 baht = ~$13

You get the idea. Thailand is THE place to travel on a budget.

As you walk around Bangkok you are assailed by an incredible array of smells - good and bad. All in the span of a minute strolling through the open air markets we encountered such blissful smells as fresh pad thai and roasting meats followed by whiffs of rotting sewage & wet dog! The good seems to come with the bad in Thailand.

If you want to get a taste of a culture, you have to eat the street food. Thailand especially. I read it in the guide book but didn't believe it until being in Bangkok myself. Local thai don't need "fancy" restaurants. They don't want "ambience". They want great food. Who cares if your fryer is a pot lashed onto the back of a rickety scooter? If it tastes good - eat it. Lindsey & I put this into practice when we saw a vendor at the markets making fresh pad thai - we didn't waste much time jumping in line. Shrimp prawns, dried tofu, peanuts, green onion, salt (or sugar?), sprouts egg & a few unidentifiable ingredients came together in the greatest pad thai I've ever had - although my favorite thai place in Boulder isn't too far off the mark. All for 20 baht (~ $1). Awesome.

Finishing out the day and resting up, we woke up the next morning for a guided tour of the Orchid Market & saw the Wat Pho. The Orchid Market was beautiful & dynamic. People flowing by on foot, scooter, tuck tuck taxi, car, bike - you name it. A constant flow of people and commerce complemented with an overarching smell of fresh flowers. The Temple of the Reclining Buddha (where the Wat Pho is housed) was almost beyond description.

First off, while the Buddhist temples of Thailand attract a lot of visitor traffic they are centers for very devout, practicing Buddhists. As such, Ryan, Steve and I were required at multiple points in the trip to put on pants in order to be admitted to certain temples or palaces. Apparently spaghetti straps are *risque* as well because Lindsey in addition to covering her legs was also asked to place a shall over her shoulders. In 90 degree weather with nearly 100% humidity you can imagine what a difference this makes - but what are you supposed to do? Say no?

Upon entry, we were stunned to view the gargantuan gilded reclining buddha, the Wat Pho. It is 46 meters long! Housed in a beautiful temple complex, I especially enjoyed the detailed work on the various altars and the mother of pearl in-lays on the buddhas feet. It is a stunning sculpture. The complex itself packs nearly as much shock value as the buddha himself - please see some of the pictures of the surrounding architecture to see what I mean. We kept encountering trees wrapped in fabric so I asked our guide the significance. Apparently there are traces of animism in the practiced buddhism of Thailand because they believe the trees have spirits, and if they don't "trap" them in with the wrappings they will come out and roam among the living....

At this point, we really started feeling the heat. Sightseeing can really take a lot out of you, and walking around in the sun for hours in near 100% humidity and high heat is a recipe for disaster. For the first three days of the trip we were completely wiped out be early afternoon and had to call early days. It wasn't until later on that we learned the secret - you have to take frequent breaks. Instead of going for 4 hours straight, it is critical in tropic climates to only go sightseeing in 1-2 hour chunks. Then go cool off in an air conditioned place for a bit before going out for another round.

The next item on our itinerary was a day trip to Ayutthaya. Ayutthaya was the capitol of Thailand from 1350 to 1767 A.D. when the Burmese invaded and destroyed the city. At that point, the government moved the country's center of power down the Chao Phraya River to Bangkok. Today, ruins still litter the vast area where the kingdom of Ayutthaya once reigned. I have a particular affinity towards ancient civilizations (while this isn't exactly "ancient"..) and I loved walking around and taking in the history. Breaking the heat with some coconut milk (straight from the coconut, broken right in front of us) we ventured around and saw a few of the temples strewn about the area. Once you get away from the city we encountered stray dogs everywhere. I warned Lindsey of rabies but if there is a cute dog around, she's going to pet it - period. And they were cute all right.

Our tour of Ayutthaya was accessed by boat. Much of Bangkok is canal accessible and we took a few canal tours to get a taste of what this way of living is like. We encountered economic polarization - it seemed as if you were either rich or extremely poor. Some houses looked cherry-picked from Martha's Vineyard while 2 houses down was a pile of sticks that looked one violent wave from destruction. It is exposure like this that reminds me of how very blessed we all are.

Finishing out our stay in Bangkok, we checked out the National Museum, Grand Palace and Golden Mount. The initial section of the museum was not air conditioned and consisted of several dioramas that looked like they were put together by an unsupervised kindergarten classes - to say the least we were not really digging it. However, as we progressed into some other parts of the repository we ran across a bewildering array of national treasures. Buddha sculptures, weapons, art. Definitely a must see if you are in Bangkok - but if your not into museums it will put you to sleep.

The Grand Palace had a more universal appeal. The architecture is stunning! Colorful, vibrant, and distinct the buildings reach high from the ground imposing their regal aura to all that pass by below. Following this Lindsey and I ventured to the Golden Mount. The Golden Mount is a temple that is built on the highest hill in Bangkok and before the era of skyscrapers was the tallest structure in the city. Today it is shrouded in forests of orchids and green fauna with torrents of tourists and locals rushing in to say a prayer, see a view or buy a trinket from the gift shop.

For all the beauty and positive associations i have with spending some time in Bangkok, I feel obligated to recognize some of the negative characteristics as well. Bangkok is crowded - REALLY crowded. When you cram 8 million people into a relatively small geographical space there are consequences. Traffic is horrible - do not rent a car. The pollution is present and unsettling. A cab driver mentioned to me that before 10 years ago there were toxic compounds in the air. While government regulations have helped some the volume of particulate matter in the air is still substantial and many locals where surgical masks over their faces to protect their lungs from everyday exposure. If you are into big cities - then you'll love Bangkok. However, if your not into the "hustle bustle" of city life it might be a little much for you. I'm part of the latter school of thought, so I was looking forward to plopping my ass on the beach in Phuket.
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Where I stayed
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pmcauslan on

sweet entry
dude within a minute of starting to read this I already want to go to thailand. Keep up the blogging, son. Hopefully I'll see you halfway around the world, cuz thats how travellers roll.

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