Adventures in Asia: Bangkok (Part One)

In hindsight, Bangkok was a special trip in many ways. For one thing, it was my first visit to the land of Thailand. And Thailand is a place that everybody dreams of going to when they first learn they’re going to Southeast Asia for exchange. You think of the full moon parties, the temples and Buddhas, the friendliness of the Thai people, and all the weird (and good) food. Finally, FINALLY, I’d be getting to go and what better introduction to Thailand than the city of Bangkok? The other thing that made it special looking back is that it marked the ramp-up of my travel plans for the rest of the semester. January was a pretty quiet moment given that we were settling in and so, this trip to Bangkok would be the first of many trips in February and in March.

            My close friend, Hailey, was doing her exchange in Bangkok at Thammasat University and so, I spontaneously booked a solo flight to go visit her for a few days. I had nothing going on that weekend and I was itching to go somewhere exciting. Luckily, she would also be staying in Bangkok that weekend, so it was perfect.

            While I was headed to the airport and as I was boarding my plane, I realized that it was actually my first plane ride completely solo – no parents, no friends. It wasn’t quite the “solo trip” that I was wanting to do on exchange but even that one fact felt like something to me, and it felt like progress.

            I landed in Bangkok in the evening. I remember getting culture shock the second I stepped out of the confines of the airport. I remember, at the time, thinking that it was funny I was getting overwhelmed because I had yet to experience any culture shock in moving to Asia because I was in Singapore, which was incredibly Western and diverse. But Bangkok was a different ballpark. I was shocked by the garbage lining the streets (something you’ll never see in Singapore) and also shocked by people’s inability to speak English (something else you’ll never experience in Singapore). I had to hail a cab to meet Hailey at her apartment but the process of hailing a cab was not easy. Before I had taken off on the plane, Hailey had told me to make sure I pointed at the meter in the cab and yelled “METER!” so that they didn’t try to rip you off with a quoted price. But little did I know that actually trying to communicate with the driver where I wanted to go was the hard part. I had taken a screenshot of her apartment’s address beforehand and so, when I got my cab, I showed it to him. He looked at it and looked confused, so I pointed at the Thai translation of the apartment. Instead of trying to figure out where it was, he pulled out a flip phone (yes, a flip phone) and called the number that was listed on the apartment Google Maps information. Then, he started speaking to the person on the other side in Thai. I later found out that if they don’t know where they’re going, what they’ll do is call the place and get directions from that person in Thai. Very strange, I know.

When I finally got to Hailey, the first thing she said to me was, “I’m taking you to Khao San Road tonight.” And so, that’s where we headed. Later on – after a day or so of being in the city – I realized that Khao San Road was the epitome of Bangkok nightlife and it was really the hub of activity in the city at night, mostly for tourists. If you Google it, it’s literally described as being the “traveler hub of Southeast Asia.” It has everything you could imagine a late-night district to have – dingy bars, cheap beer, souvenirs, street food, vendors, cheap hostels, and more.  Since we got there so late at night, it was already alive and bustling. Its craziness felt so foreign to me; while Singapore has nightlife, I feel like the best way to describe it is refined nightlife (spotless bars, pristine nightclubs, that sort of thing). Khao San Road was an entirely different story. It was messy, it was loud, and it was so much fun. That first time was definitely one to remember. We just walked up and down and I took it all in. We may or may not have tried scorpions and laughing gas (twice). I remember sitting down to share a cocktail in a bucket and the Thai lady sitting next to us, who actually worked at that stall, just started offering the food she was eating to us: pork, mango salad, guava with hot sauce. She just smiled at us and kept gesturing us to take more, as if we were her old friends that she regularly got together with, instead of just two foreign strangers.

            The next day, we had a full day of sightseeing. Although Hailey had pretty much explored most of Bangkok by that point, she still came around the city with me and we did explore a few things she hadn’t seen. Our first stop of the day was Wat Traimit, which is otherwise known as the Temple of the Golden Buddha.

The temple houses a 5.5-tonne gold statue of a seated Buddha, which dates back to the 13th century and measures at nearly 5 metres in height. Apparently, it was originally covered in plaster but the golden façade underneath was revealed after movers accidentally dropped it.

            The Wat Traimit was the first “wat” (temple)  that I was visiting in Bangkok and I was definitely not disappointed. I had my breath taken away and the same thing would later happen at each subsequent wat.

            After a good breakfast paired with some fresh fruit smoothies, we wandered over to the Grand Palace, which is probably Bangkok’s biggest attraction. It’s situated on the banks of the main river (the Chao Phraya River) and so, we had a good look at the riverside too. The Grand Palace has been the official residence of the Kings of Siam (and later Thailand) since 1782. This palace will blow you away; the palace complex has a combined area of 218,400 square metres and there is so much gold everywhere.

The complex is made up of numerous buildings, halls, pavilions set around open lawns, gardens, and courtyards. It felt like you could wander and wander and still somehow not see it all. There was so much to see with every turn that we took. Some parts of the palace complex looked similar – the gold, the crouched statues, the gemstones – but other parts looked radically different. It felt like there was a medley of worlds in there, and we were lucky enough to see each one. 

           Everything was stunning. Everything was shiny. And I loved, most of all, the depictions of these warriors that they had everywhere.

Its most defining aspect is that it houses the Emerald Buddha, also known as Wat Phra Kaew. The Emerald Buddha is regarded as the most sacred Buddhist temple in Thailand, which is really saying something. According to an old legend, this Buddha image originated in India where the sage Nagasena prophesized that the Emerald Buddha would bring prosperity and pre-eminence to each country in which it resides and so, the Emerald Buddha is viewed as the protector of the country. It stands in one of the buildings in the Grand Palace. It’s a dark green statue, in standing form, and it’s about 66 centimetres tall carved from a single jade stone. They specifically don’t allow pictures in there so I don’t have photos of what it looks like. Something cool that they do is that the King changes the cloak around the statue three times a year, corresponding to the summer, winter and rainy seasons. It’s an important ritual that’s performed to bring good fortune to the country during each season.

            Afterward, we took the ferry across the river for a grand total of 3.5 baht, which translates to about 15 cents. Such a great way to get from one river bank to the other. We were onto our next wat of the day, which was Wat Arun. This was the one that I was the most excited for, the one that I had seen so many amazing pictures of.

            Wat Arun was also called Temple of the Dawn. The reason why? The temple was envisioned by King Taksin in 1768. After fighting his way out of Ayutthaya, which was taken over by a Burmese army at the time, he arrived at this temple just as dawn was breaking. He later had the temple renovated and officially renamed it the Temple of the Dawn. I’ve heard it also looks its best at the time of dawn when the first light is being reflected off its surface.

            The temple is magnificent. You pretty much have to crane your neck to see the top of the spire, if you’re standing at the base. It’s made up of colourfully decorated spires and the main spire rises over 70 metres high, beautifully decorated with tiny pieces of coloured glass and Chinese porcelain placed delicately into intricate patterns. It’s beautiful. I had not seen anything else like it before it. It felt really different even from the other two wats that we had seen today, simply because of how grand and how colourful it was.  

            It was late afternoon by the time we were done with our visit to Wat Arun, and the sun was stronger than ever. We went to go sit at a café with some drinks after we were done, just to cool off.

            At night, we went to Thipsamai for dinner, which served their famous pad thai dish. To make things better? We got mango sticky rice from a street vendor after dinner and it was the best possible dessert I could have had that night. The mango – one whole mango – is cut up in front of you and put into the dessert. The sticky rice they have is tender and sweet, and it’s just made ten times better with the condensed milk that you pour on the rice and mango. After that first mango sticky rice, I was craving it every moment the rest of the Bangkok trip.

            To cap off the day, we headed back to Khao San Road, AGAIN. It seemed like the place you’d just go at night if you had no other specific plan. The same things were happening on the road: the same parties, the same drinks, the same vendors selling the same snacks and souvenirs. But something that I remember that night was that I saw my first ladyboy. Ladyboys are a huge thing in Thailand, made popular in the Western hemisphere with the movie “The Hangover Part II”. Essentially, the term is used to describe a male to a female transgender person. They’re hard to recognize sometimes because of how similar they look to females. People have told me that if you see an incredibly pretty girl on the streets, chances are it’s a ladyboy. I’ve also been told that to check, you just have to look at their hands: they’ll be abnormally large for a woman. That night, we were with a guy in our group and he had been walking ahead of us on the street. Next thing you know, I see an incredibly pretty woman standing next to him, trying to get his attention. As soon as they saw us approaching, the ladyboy dashed off. Apparently, they’re very shy.

            That was the end of the first two days in Bangkok, the final two days are up next (:

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