An Introduction to Bangkok

We woke up way too early for how little we had slept over the past day and a half. After an hour of debating the merits of the best way to get around on a sightseeing mission, we enjoyed a small but satisfying continental breakfast at our hotel, the Mode Sathorn. Located in the Silom district, the Sathorn is a very modern styled accomodation with a focus on class and fashion. They have a written (but in my experience un-enforced) dress code that prohibits shorts and flip flops in their bars / open areas, which seems extreme for what most visitors to Bangkok are going to be wearing.

The room lights and temperatures are controlled via a panel by the bed with various "presets" for hanging out, reading in bed, and sleeping. The AC and lighting only work when the key-card is in a slot by the door, preventing us from leaving them on all day while we are gone. Instead of the traditional do not disturb / service doorknob hanger, we have two buttons by the door that toggle on and off lights on the other side. This was a source of confusion for us during our late night arrival as we fumbled around trying to figure out how to turn the lights on in the room. We are on the 25th floor, with a great view of a Bangkok skyline from both the bedroom and bathroom. I say "a" skyline, because there is a skyline in every direction. I've never been exactly sure what direction we are facing.

After breakfast, we stopped briefly at the concierge to inquire about a vastly overpriced tour taxi to the major temple sites, which we wisely passed on. It's challenging as a traveller to figure out when you're being cheap and when you're being smart. Vacation in general is comprised of slowly losing money until it's all gone and you go home. When you don't have a context for what things SHOULD cost or are worth, you really just have to go with your gut and hope that you're satisfied with what you get for your money. Sometimes it's worth it to pay extra not to have to deal with the extra time and planning of figuring it out yourself. Often it isn't.

We finally settled on a 150 baht day pass for a river taxi that had stops at most of the major temples we wanted to see throughout the day. We sunscreened up, locked our computers in the hotel safe, and walked out the door. Breaking the seal on a new city is overwhelming and exciting. In my experience, the overall enjoyment of a place is going to be influenced heavily by how that first trip goes.

The 3/4 mile walk to the pier was indicative of every future Bangkok walking experience. Sidewalks and curbsides are littered with motorcycle and tuk-tuk drivers looking to pick up fares. The tuk-tuk drivers are agressive and friendly, and from my reading often unreliable as an efficient means of transportation. At least in Bangkok, where public transportation and cabs are so prevalent, we decided to avoid them all together. Sidewalks are also sporadically taken over by small markets, for both food and goods. It's not uncommon on any block to have someone cooking a full menu worth of Thai food, with a couple of makeshift tables for a quick bite. Dried fish, iced fruit slices, water and juice stands- all is accessible to you on every block, should you be game.

Crossing streets is also an interesting experience. It's not a walking friendly city- traffic is intense, and there are cabs, tuk-tuks, and motorcycles swerving in and out, popping out of alleys, and generally running the show. We didn't see a lot of other walkers, and rather than crosswalks, you just sort of look for a best window to dart out into traffic and hope people stop. In a way, it's kind of like Portland, except as soon as a driver in Portland sees you, they stop (often a half block back). We never had anyone not stop for us, but it usually felt like the driver waited until the last second to hit the brakes in order to encourage us to move quickly.

Our first walk was the 3/4 mile to the pier where we boarded our boat at Sathonr Pier. The Chao Praya river runs through the center of town, with 12 numbered piers along the way. The tour ferry runs every 30 minutes until 4pm, and was a perfect way to get to the major destinations.

Our first stop was the Grand Palace, which is a giant temple in a complex with the residence of the King (at least formally, I don't think he actually lives there now), and some other official government buildings. All temples have a strict dress code- no short skirts or exposed shoulders. We knew this and Emily brought a scarf to wrap around her shoulders, but even this wasn't enough and we were asked to rent a shirt during our visit. We gladly complied.

Forgoing an official tour of any kind, we mostly just wandered in and out of the various buildings, admiring the craftsmanship of the statues and decorations. All of the temples we've visited are active Buddhist temples, and monks can be seen all over town. There is even a seat on the SkyTrain (public transit) car that suggests that you give up to a monk if he is present. While the temple was crowded with tourists snapping photos, it was also full of religous visitors making prayer. There are no shoes allowed in temples, so you take them off and pile them at the entrance. It's also a great offense to point your feet towards the Buddha statue that is the focus of each temple, so everyone sits on their knees with their legs back.

After exhausting ourself wandering around and taking pictures, we returned the shirt Emily rented and got back on the river taxi toward one of the most famous temples, Wat Pho (a.k.a the Temple of the Reclining Buddha). We wandered the grounds a bit, and after realizing that any more photos would be indistinguishable from photos from previous and future temples we decided that we'd had a pretty good run and needed to get some lunch.

We knew / were able to guess a few rules about street food in Thailand. One- if it's close to a major tourist attraction, it's probably not the best food / deal. Two- if no one is eating there, or at least no Thais, it's probably not great either. We walked about a half mile until we found a stand that was filling up for lunch with locals, and pointed to something they were making. It was essentially a hot soup of some kind, with a couple of kinds of meat that I'm still not really positive about. It was delicious, and it was about 2 dollars.

Feeling satisfied and smart, we decided to wander a little farther towards a giant flower market indicated in some guide books. After not finding it and getting a bit lost, we ran headfirst into one of the most common scams in Bangkok.

The argument against being a tourist in a big city is that without question, there are people waiting to prey on you. It's often nothing sinister- every business tries to find ways to exploit it's clientele to make more money, but it's not usually so personal as the scams and rates that confront a self-identifying tourist in a major tourist destination. As a result, there's no way to go about it rather than hardening yourself to every friendly local and never giving them the benefit of the doubt in their approach to you. It's counter-intuitive to an ideal travel experience- one where you open yourself up to the people of another country and let them show you their home like they'd want it to be seen- but if you're burned once it can be costly and detrimental to your vacation.

In Bangkok, there is a well known scam that tuk-tuk drivers pull that is famous enough to be one of the first things listed in travel tips. It goes like this: a person sees you walking towards a tourist destination. Maybe you're looking a bit lost, maybe you just look like a sucker. They greet you friendly and let you know that that destination is closed for cleaning / some official event / etc, and offer you a great tour of stuff that IS open, ensuring you that they'll give you the best tour you can get. You pay a substantial amount up front (most likely), and then they drive you around for a while until you are unsatisfied enough to give up and get off.

We knew about this, and it still took 10 minutes of a conversation with a local in which he first told us that the street we were walking on was blocked due to the royal family being on it, and then told us the flower market was closed for cleaning for the next two hours to realize what was up. We mostly just wanted to find directions to the flower market, which he picked up a leaf off the ground and started to write, but instead he just wrote down a list of temples we should hit, and gave us suggestions for a tuk-tuk company to use. "Only use the green and yellow one", he said, as a green and yellow tuk-tuk pulled up beside us. Obviously, we were dumb enough to have a 15 minute conversation with the guy before politely declining, but I am thankful that we were smart enough to think twice about what was happening.

After that, we bailed on the flower market and decided to try and find our way back to the dock. From there, we took a ferry to the other side of the river to check out the final temple on our list, Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn). After getting across and seeing it, though really incredible, the heat and jet lag was taking a toll on us and we bailed on entering. It took until 2pm or so to sink in that we had spent 27 hours travelling the previous day and slept 5 hours that night. Our bodies were shutting down, and we got a Thai iced tea and ferried our way back across.

The other thing about jet lag is that your appetite is totally inconsistent with when you've eaten. We had 25 minutes to kill before the ferry showed up, so we got some more cheap street food right there on the pier. It was equally cheap, but much less good.

On the way back to our home port, I pulled a classic Matt travel move, which is to get off a stop early and then realize it as the transporation pulls away. Especially good when you've paid for a one way trip or the next bus / etc doesn't come for another 30 minutes. After realizing our mistake and being too tired to walk, we decided to cab the remaining distance to our hotel. We successfully avoided another classic Bangkok scam- the flat taxi price as opposed to using the meter.

Two scams avoided, sore feet, and no sleep sent us back to the hotel to relax and check out the pool. The pool is on the 11th floor, and runs right up to a rooftop edge. There is a swim-up bar (with drinks that aren't worth it), and plenty of lounge chairs around. Not a lot to say about a nice pool. You would have liked it.

We were falling asleep on the chaise lounges, and the sky above was getting cloudy, so we headed back to the room for a rinse off and some downtime. Not long after, it started to pour. The wind and rain lasted until dark, and we were glad not to be stuck out in it. We did make the mistake of deciding to take a nap. When the alarm woke us up at 7:00pm or so, I was entirely out of it and didn't recover for the rest of the night.

But we did need some dinner, so we made our first venture out on the SkyTrain to a neighborhood on Sukumvit (a popular street). The skytrain is awesome. Air conditioned, efficient, cheap. No scams, no hassle. It also felt like it was entirely comprised of younger people, which would explain the heavy video ad marketing on the train. Energy drinks, tv shows, facial cleansers, and various microwave dinners seemed to be the focus of the ads that we were definitely sick of after our 5th or 6th trip.

The rain had stopped, and the streets were wet and puddled. I think that's one benefit of the rainy season- every afternoon, the streets get cleaned. We went to a hip Thai restaurant started by an American ex-pat, which happened to have some Oregon beers on tap. I was still not feeling great, but a little Burmese pork curry, steamed fish, and mango sticky rice dessert helped me back to my senses. We strolled up the road after dinner past numerous tourist-heavy bars and nightlife, but were too exhausted to really check any out.

We also knew we had one more stop we needed to make before bed: the rooftop bar of our hotel. Up on the 38th floor is a very classy bar with chairs facing out in all directions. Drinks were expensive (roughly $10 per), but the view and experience was worth every penny. Attempts at photos were made, but some things are impossible to capture and explain to people. So far, the hour or so we spent on the roof of our hotel is one of the stand out memories of the trip. 

The day was both longer and more entertaining than this post, and a great introduction to one of the great cities of the world.

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