The word “overwhelming” comes to mind when trying to describe Bangkok, and not in a bad way. There is so much to see, to taste and to think about that the city might give one a culture (and heat) shock!
The morning after I arrived in Bangkok, I walked from my hotel to a sidewalk restaurant and had a breakfast of fried rice and egg. It was excellent and invigorating with the right amount of chili to wake me up and give me strength to face the multitude of crowds that I encountered next at the entrance of Wat Phra Kaew and the Royal Palace.
Many many tour groups had lined up to get into the temple and, for a minute, I considered not going inside and heading back to the same breakfast stall for another serving of rice and some more relaxation. However, I persisted, stood in line for my tickets and walked into a stunning area that was covered in fantastic paintings, ornaments and sculptures. Given the number of people, it was hard to navigate the space and I sat on a step and read through the description in my guidebook for some, well, guidance.
Wat Phra Kaew is absolutely stunning; the buildings are beautiful and highly ornamented and the walls all around are covered in highly detailed paintings with motifs from the story of Rama and Sita. There is so much to see that one can easily spend hours just looking at the paintings. A great feature is that golden colors are incorporated into the paintings, such that they glow from a distant in the light, giving them a magical quality that is hard to describe.
The most sacred sight in the temple is the Jade Buddha. There are many stories and legends that surround this holy image and the room in which it is housed is full of praying pilgrims.
After spending a few hours in the temple I moved to the Grande Palace, which is used only for very special occasions such as coronations or royal funerals. The most interesting building for me was a large place that was built entirely in a European style but with Thai style roofs. The story being that it was designed in Europe but once the building was near to being finished the king was convinced to incorporate Thai elements into its architecture. Thus, giving it a final Thai touch.
After visiting Wat Phra Kaew, I went into a small museum, Museum Siam, that was air-conditioned, full of interactive displays about the culture and history of Thailand, and specifically Bangkok, and provided a nice respite from the heat.
After this break, I had a nice Thai coffee and headed for the second temple on my schedule, the Wat Pho. This temple was much more chilled out than the first one and I found the atmosphere and many Buddha statues there relaxing. Among the statues in this temple were some Western looking characters that the guide explained might have been inspired by Marco Polo!
As I walked around the temple, I saw a small room with the oldest inscriptions that describe the principles of Thai massage. This temple is believed to be the first place where this art and technique started to be taught and, therefore, has immense historical importance.
Given this significance, I decided to go into an on-site massage clinic and try a massage by an expert practitioner. I entered a big hall with neatly placed massage mats on the floor and many people getting Thai massages that looked more like partner Yoga poses to me. A couple of very old monks went ahead of me to get a massage. I was paired up with a polite young man and for an hour he pressed pressure points and pulled and pushed on my limbs. At times it was pretty painful but afterwards I felt much more relaxed and, how to say, fluid in my body!
After the massage, I took a commuter boat ride across the Chao Phraya River; the afternoon views were beautiful and I was starting to feel tired. As I was walking back to my hotel, I came across a university cafeteria and had a tasty salad there. People are very fond of having many small meals throughout the day in this part of the world and I had decided to follow suit!
As I walked back to my hotel, I came across a riverside park where a very energetic and small Asian lady with a big speaker system was giving group workout instructions to a similarly energetic and enthusiastic group of middle aged Asian ladies. At the back of the group an older European gentleman who looked like Bukowski in a sleeveless shirt and shorts was also following the instructions with a serious expression on his face.
After getting back to the hotel and having a few lethargic resting hours, I decided to go for a little walk on the legendary Khao San Road.
The Khao San Road is legendary among travelers (especially backpackers and hippies) in Asia and … rightly so! It is a wild street full of travelers of all kinds, tourists, vagabonds, local hip Thais and everything in between walking through a street that offers many forms of (legal) worldly pleasures, from mouth-watering food (although definitely not authentic) to all kinds of drinks (and gases, laughing gas was apparently on order too!) to all kinds of BBQ’d creepy crawlies (e.g., worms, scorpions and cockroaches)! I walked down the street a couple of times and listened to the many cover bands (including an excellent Nirvana cover band) from the street and then walked back to my hotel for a sound night sleep.
In my second day in Bangkok, I continued my exploration with the usual theme of temples, museum and food. I visited Wat Saket, which is perched high on top of a hill overlooking Bangkok and has been there way before the skyscrapers started to scrape the sky!
I also visited an excellent museum called the Jim Thompson House. This is the former house of an American-born expat who was fascinated in Thai culture and single-handedly revived an appreciation for Thai silk though advocating for it New York fashion shows.
Mr. Thompson had build his house in the original Thai style and had gathered together a very nice and eclectic collection of antiques from around the world. Among the many interesting objects in his house were a pair of astrology drawings that predicted a dangerous time for him when he turns 61. In fact, he disappeared without a trace that year when he was on an expedition in Malaysia! During the tour, I found out that it is a Thai tradition to make when a house is made, an altar be erected for the spirits who used to dwell in the land so they can move there and be happy. I saw many of these small spirit houses throughout my trip.
I continued with a walk in Chinatown where bird nest soup and (unfortunately) shark fin soup were advertised on shop windows. I ended my Bangkok tour by a compulsory walk through the infamous Soi Cowboy, aka the Brightest Street in Bangkok! Apparently, the name of this street comes from a retired American airman who opened one of the first gogo-bars here in the 1970s and used to wear a cowboy hat! As it was mid-week, this street was not super busy but still many girls in scant clothing were standing in the street and trying to talk to groups of walking men.
Once I exited the surprisingly short street, I was surprised to see a group of young Persian men sitting on a nearby platform and listening to one of their friends singing a Persian song, “yar-e man…”. With this nostalgic voice in my ears and the glow of the lights in my eyes, I thought about all the lonely men, from American soldiers to European and Middle Eastern tourists and everyone in between, who have walked these streets. And the many women whose lives somehow became entangled with the Brightest Street in Bangkok.
The Northern town of Chiang Mai, a city close to the border with Myanmar, provides a nice relief from the heat and crowds of Bangkok. Many travelers who are interested in outdoor activities or visiting hill tribes use Chiang Mai (or its smaller neighbor Chiang Rai) as a base. Being a backpacker and tourist haven provides ample amenities for the weary traveler but can sometimes be a bit overwhelming. Chiang Mai was famously featured in the Chinese slapstick comedy blockbuster, Lost in Thailand, which prompted a lot of Chinese tourists to visit it in the last few years.
I started my visit with exploring some of Chiang Mai many exquisite temples which are within easy walking distance from each other and each have unique features. Temples here have a different style from Bangkok and are often made from wood. The architecture and ornaments are breathtaking. In my humble opinion, the carvings at one of these temples, the Wat Buppharam, were the most exquisite. Paradoxically, this temple also included a bizarre Donald Duck statue among the traditional artifacts!
Vibrant night markets are another great feature of Chiang Mai. On weekends endless rows of sellers present craft works, art pieces, food and everything-in-between to a slow river of flowing people. During these nightly walks, I tried some of the tastiest curries I’ve ever had. They were served in thin plastic bags, were piping hot (both temperature and spice heat) and absolutely delicious! I remember sitting beside the road with a couple of bags of fiery curry mixed with fragrant rice, and burning with joy!
This experience reminded me of one of my friend’s remark that in Thailand, much attention has been paid to worldly pleasures from some of the best foods and drinks to excellent massages (including one involving small fish!).
The closest mountain range to Chiang Mai is Doi Suthep Pui National Park. Rather than a tranquil sanctuary, the park is home to many sights including the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep temple that overlooks the city of Chiang Mai, a couple of hill tribe villages, the Chiagn Mai zoo and many other attractions. I spend half a day exploring the zoo and a few hours at the temple. The animals in the zoo were quite fun to see (even despite their lethargic state given the humidity and heat!). A fun activity in the park involved paying a small fee to feed a variety of animals from emus and elephants to tigers and lions!
One night I decided to check out the nightlife scene in Chiang Mai. Sitting on a patio in a backpacker bar, I met two unlikely friends, a truck driver from Australia and an insurance broker from San Francisco. We were soon joined by a firefighter from Korea and a big group of German travelers. Together, we checked out a surprisingly awesome jazz joint called, the North Gate Jazz Club, a cheesy outdoor dance floor called, Zoe in Yellow, a really nice live ska bar (that I don’t know the name of), and finally a slightly sketchy after-hours spot called, Spicy. This last place was closed down at 1:30 am, which left many a party goers in despair. But that’s a half-hour past the official close time. Anyways, I didn’t go out much on this trip and seeing the several venues in one night was kind of a treat! The next day, I grabbed a Thai omelette from a family restaurant and followed it by a special treat: the most delicious mango rice plate ever! Time to say goodbye to Thailand!