กรุงเทพฯ. Bangkok. Krung Thep. The Big Mango. Spend five minutes here and this place immediately hits you on the head with a large, metal wok. Bangkok is sensory overload: Interminable traffic congestion spewing heavy, noxious exhaust. 32°C (that’s 90°F) hot, thick and humid air even in late November. Tuk-tuk drivers and salesmen nagging relentlessly for your money and attention. Chefs at street food carts stir-frying pad thai and grilling skewers of meat all through the night. Long tail boats speeding through the Chao Phraya River past numerous temples like there is no tomorrow.
Amidst all the commotion, my five day experience here was not defined by what we saw and did, but by small, frustrating, or hilarious events that led us into a strange and intoxicating delirium that could only happen here. At first, our response to these events was something along the lines of “Are you kidding me?” or “Holy Shit!” but by the end of our stay, a simple “Huh…that’s Bangkok for ya” became the norm. I cannot help but feel like Thailand changed me, and rightfully so.
My roommate and I begin our adventure in Bangkok at the Rambuttri Village Inn Hotel, near Khao San Road, which is most definitely the largest backpacker’s hub in Asia. Before we even check in to our room, we order some pad thai for 30 Baht (1USD) from a nearby street stall, curing our hunger with Thailand’s most famous dish. We then check in, drop off our bags, and walk around the Banglamphu area, indulging in good street eats, looking at souvenirs, and getting a feel for the unique character of this area. “This place is like the Jamaica of the East,” I told Michael. Khao San Road is a people-watcher’s dream, full of dreadlocked, grungy vagabonds and hippies, lost inexperienced, backpackers, and Thais who live off of the tourism industry. Walking around Khao San Road becomes a common activity, and we gradually uncover its rhythm and its quirks. As the night arrives, makeshift bars emerge onto street sides selling drinks out of VW buses while playing Bob Marley. Endless massage parlors offer a huge variety of massages for the starting price of 100 Baht for half an hour. Street food carts and souvenir vendors line every available inch of the frenetic streets. Everyone is intoxicated, from beer, the energy of Bangkok, or both.
The next morning, we rise early to catch a tour. We pay 600 Baht, or around USD 20, for an all day tour from 7am to 7pm. By this time, we are very aware that almost everything in Thailand is incredibly inexpensive. This is a big deal for two independent student travelers. We sleep in the back of a van for the next too hours as our daring driver weaves through traffic at 140 kilometers per hour. Finally, we arrive at a WWII memorial in Kanchanaburi. After twenty uneventful minutes, we proceed to the Bridge on the River Kwai. It was built as part of the infamous “death railway” by prisoners of war captured by the Japanese army during WWII, and made famous by French writer Pierre Boulle. We think it looks like an ordinary bridge.
Next, we find ourselves on a river, floating on a bamboo raft. We are at peace, gently gliding along the river, in the hot Thai sun.
Once on the shore, we hop on an elephant for a relaxing ride beside the river. I rhythmically move side to side on my seat as the powerful animal carries three of us effortlessly. Afterwords, we feed the animal a basket of bananas. He grabs them with his impressive trunk and then shoves them into his mouth. A monkey becomes obsessed with Michael’s shoes, or perhaps he just wants a friend.
After a brief lunch and visit to a waterfall, its off to the Tiger Temple for the culmination of the day. We pay only 100 Baht less than our day long tour to enter the Tiger Temple. While it is supposed to be a tiger sanctuary and Buddhist monastery, it is essentially a major tourist attraction where tigers are breed and domesticated. There is overwhelming evidence that tigers are mistreated. Although we both are able to get a number of good pictures with large tigers, the experience felt akin to standing with a goat at a petting zoo. An employee holds your hand for most of the time as she takes you around and takes pictures of you squatting behind a chained, domesticated, sleepy (and perhaps drugged) tiger. All things considered, it was still a cool experience.
After this we speed back to Bangkok. We spend the remaining part of the day walking around Khao San Road, eating, drinking, and enjoying the scene. We also take a brief detour to Patpong Road, slightly curious about the “ping pong show” that every other Thai salesman bothers us about. While I do not want to go into the nitty gritty of Patpong, its safe to say that this place has no rules. Prostitutes, topless bars, relentless immoral salesmen, and dangerous alleyways. We leave pretty quickly.
On Saturday, we head to Chatuchak Weekend Market, one of Southeast Asia’s largest markets. It covers over 35 acres and receives roughly 200,000 visitors per weekend. It is massive and chaotic. We are immediately engulfed in a maze of stalls, which are selling everything from food to clothing to Thai souvenirs to modern decor. Everything is incredibly, even overwhelmingly, cheap. After navigating the market until the mid-afternoon, we emerge soaked in sweat and with a number of unique, inexpensive souvenirs. Thailand has by far the best souvenir selection I have seen in any country I have been to. As a result, by the end of the trip my roommate and I have trouble packing our bags as the number of purchased souvenirs and gifts exceeds the amount of available space. Our temporary shopping craze and ability to spend hundreds of Baht in minutes became a major joking matter during our travels.
After the market, we head back and then go to Wat Pho, one of Bangkok’s major Buddhist temples. The main attraction at Wat Pho is the gigantic golden Reclining Buddha, which measures 46 meters long and 15 meters high. The sky is gray and the ground shows signs of rain, but this does not detract from this massive image.
On Sunday morning, we visit the remaining must-see temples of Bangkok, which are all in close proximity to each other, forming a “temple triangle.” The first stop is the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew, or Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The Grand Palace was the official residence for the Kings of Thailand up until the most recent King. Thailand is indeed a Kingdom, and citizens of this Kingdom hold their King in highest regard, plastering elegant posters of his face everywhere. In contrast to most monarchs, the current King of Thailand has been involved in important political decisions throughout his long 64 year reign.
The Grand Palace is large and displays many intricately constructed buildings and structures, all demonstrating the unique aspects of Thai architecture. Despite the high price for entry, it is still a worthwhile visit.
The elephant is an important part of Thai culture, a national symbol. The animals were once important during battle, and are now revered for their intelligence. From statues in temples to beer logos, elephants are everywhere. As we walk from the Grand Palace to a public bus stop, which turns out to be much farther then anticipated, we see this monument.
Once we finally reach the bus stop, we take a bus to the nearby Damnoen Saduak Floating Market. We avoid the steep fee of a long tail boat tour to the market by taking the spacious, air conditioned public bus. This market only operates on weekends, and while it is small and obviously not practical, it is quite interesting and exciting. Floating markets used to be an essential part of Thai culture because life was centered around the river. Stilt houses were built on rivers. River boats were used to travel from place to place. It was only a matter of time before floating markets offered food from the river. Nowadays, floating markets seem more like tourist attractions. However, to my surprise, this market is almost entirely trafficked by native Thais.
We walk around and then sit down to have a delicious, floating, lunch. We watch masses of large freshwater fish fight for pieces of bread that are thrown into the water. The fish literally rise out of the surface of the water in a chaotic cluster of desperate, hungry, voilence.
From here, its off to Wat Arun, which turns out to be my favorite temple of the trip. The “Temple of Dawn” at sunset is arguable one of Bangkok’s most recognizable images. The temple has an aged appearance, made from colorful inlaid tiles that have been weathered over many years. We were able to climb the steep steps of the pyramidal structure, granting us a breathtaking 360 degree view of surrounding Bangkok.
Upon leaving Wat Arun, we begin to notice something special lining the tables of a nearby market. They are the very reason the my roommate and I decided to visit Thailand during this specific weekend. They are krathongs, small boats usually made of banana leaves and flowers, and used in the main ritual of the Loy Krathong Festival. The night was approaching, and Loy Krathong was coming with it.
After a brief recharge at the hotel, we see the sun beginning to set and know it is time. Soon it is dark, and we quickly head to the river. The energy, the excitement of the festival, a celebration of light, is already electrifying the air. We had heard little about the event during the previous days, and did not know if it would be a “big deal.” It is a big deal.
We make it to the river and are instantly in complete, consuming awe. We walk along the river for some time, but cannot stand the intense crowds any longer. We head towards the magnificent Rama 8 Bridge, where much of the action seems to be taking place. As we get closer, it is obvious that there is not even room for two more people amongst the extremely crowded bridge. We wander through back alleys near the river, and finally find a hidden pier, which is only sparsely populated. This is what we see.
People are lowering beautiful krathongs, which have flaming candles and burning incense sticks, into the swirling river, letting all their troubles and sins float away. Massive, majestically lit floats gently glide by on the river in an amazing procession. Fireworks explode in the sky. Children play with sparklers, moving them up and down and watching the trail of light quickly disappear before their eyes. People light large balloon lanterns, letting them gracefully leave their hands and float into the sky, where they will join hundreds of others. A large, luminous full moon watches from above. It is at once one of the most beautiful, awe inspiring sites I have ever witnessed. Bangkok is always energy, always chaos. It is a madhouse. Adding a national festival to the mix is like combining ecstasy and heroin. The result is unreal.
We purchase a krathong near the pier and then ask a Thai to give us a hand. He lights our candle, and I set the intricate boat into a metal basket. It is then lowered into the river. We both watch it slowly float away, and I exhale, feeling my troubles evaporate. After releasing our krathong, we leave the pier and walk around for a while, attempting to take in the festivities. Later, we return to the pier. We find two plastic chairs and set them up on the pier, witnessing, relaxing, with bottles of Chang beer in hand. I ask a Thai man for some food, and fifteen minutes later he brings me a porcelain plate with a delicious vegetable and chicken stir fry. This is a moment I will always remember. Everything feels perfect, just sitting their, watching this unreal festival unfold before me. It is a powerful reminder that life can be so good, that life can be so unbelievable, and that life is so precious.
After almost an hour of almost meditative sitting, we get up and decide to walk back to Wat Arun to see what it looks like at night. We know it is far, but again we underestimate the distance. After 45 minutes of walking through crowds of rambunctious Thais, endless tables selling krathongs, and an occasional food stall, we reach our destination. The temple looks quite striking at night, especially on this light-filled one.
After this, we are ready to head back to Khao San Road. Unable to walk any longer, we search for a taxi or tuk-tuk. We are wary of tuk-tuk drivers, who always seem to either try and rip you off or to have something else strange up their sleeves. After a few minutes of searching in vain, a saint magically appears.
He is a Thai man on a scooter, a convenient, popular form of transportation among Bangkokers. He asks us where we want to go. “Khao San Road.” “Okay, 50 Baht,” is the reply, which is accompanied by an unmatchable Thai smile. “Both of us?” I ask. Michael hops on behind the driver, and then I sit behind him. We whiz off into the night.
I hold on for dear life as we weave through traffic, feeling surges of adrenaline and wind in my face. I look up and see hundreds of lit balloons floating in the sky. Again, I am thinking “There is no way this is real.” My thoughts are soon confirmed. Our cheerful driver begins to sing. “Looooyyy looooy krathong, loy loy krathong…” In a moment of bliss and perfect cultural harmony, we sing the Loy Krathong song along with him, speeding through the Bangkok night.
In the morning, it takes some time to recount all that occurred in the previous night. We happily discuss and laugh about it over breakfast, then catch a cab to Jim Thompson’s House, a famous American expatriate who helped spearhead the Thai silk industry in the 1950’s. We take a brief tour through his red, Thai inspired house. He was an architect, and I cannot help but admire the way the house is set up, with small cottages built on columns and open, outdoor living areas assembled under these raised cottages.
We then return to the hotel, somehow spend the large amount of deposit money we forgot about, and then head off to the airport.
After five amazing days in Thailand, my only wish is for more time in this unbelievable Kingdom.