Bangkok: Rated G

I’d heard things about Bangkok. Crazy stories. Tales of debauched offerings in seedy parts of town. Nervous laughs from friends who’ve actually seen The Hangover Part II (I think it may be for the best that I actually managed to never watch that movie before leaving for Asia). Bangkok, from what I gathered prior to arriving, was where you went if you wanted to make your lost weekend in Vegas look like your grandmother’s 90th birthday party.

But for Hayley and me, Bangkok was envisioned, from the start, as a jumping-off point. I was far more interested in the mist-capped hills and jungles, the spicy curries, and the handicraft markets of the north; the tropical island paradises in the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand; the opportunities for slow-boat travel to Laos or afternoon field-trips to Myanmar possible from Chiang Rai. One night in Bangkok was going to be plenty enough for me, and it would be spent largely inside the air-conditioned confines of my hostel room. The morning after arriving in Bangkok via Kuala Lumpur, Hayley and I planned to head immediately north.

Of course, we had no way of knowing just how exhausted we’d be by the time we got to Bangkok. A naive belief that all our transit plans would fall perfectly into place left us mentally unprepared for the journey from Langkawi to Thailand: Five hours sitting on the floor of Langkawi’s duty-free mall/ferry terminal waiting for the only available boat to mainland Malaysia. Three hours crouched on the steps outside yet another mall in central Penang, watching stray dogs with sagging bellies scamper by, waiting for a night bus to Kuala Lumpur. Seven hours, all told, on an overnight bus to KL that included stops to fix a broken bus door and to evict the animal below, which had crept in through said broken door and proceeded to leap from the shoulders of passenger to passenger, wreaking havoc and a chorus of sleepily nervous giggles throughout the coach.

I asked the guy who finally caught this thing what it was and he said “stoat.” As impressed as I was that he actually knew an English word as random as “stoat,” I don’t think he was right.

Then, another bus ride from KL to the airport, a second bus to the airport’s low-cost carrier terminal, a six-hour wait at Kuala Lumpur International, a two-hour flight to Bangkok, and another hour on public transportation before arriving at hour hostel on the outskirts of town. All told, 30 hours of travel door-to-door – enough to make even the most hardened backpacker happy to end the evening with a shower and a good book.

And yet:

Pink taxis, ramshackle skyscrapers, and street stalls: yep, that’s Bangkok.

The lure of being in a new city tugged at us both. We decided, in the end, to venture out of the hostel for dinner. We conceded that we should spend at least one full day exploring Bangkok (although, in the interest of full disclosure, this was due just as much to our desire to sleep in past check-out time the next day as our motivation to hoof it around the city). We started feeling either antsy or guilty – I’m not sure which. And so we booked a second night at our hostel and then hailed our first tuk-tuk.

The first time I heard the phrase “tuk-tuk,” I did not know what it meant, but was too embarrassed to ask. So here you go: a tuk-tuk is a motorbike with a little open-air cab attached to the back. They are usually cheaper, more dangerous, and more prone to exhaust fumes in the mouth than regular taxis, and are a great deal more fun.

We headed straight for Khao San Road, the kind of tourist hive where every vendor is selling the same selection of Chang Beer tank tops and knock-off Ray Bans and you see enough pale complexions to forget you’re actually in Asia. It was far from the most authentic introduction to Thailand, sure, but it was also just about all we had the stamina for. We plunked ourselves down at a table in front of a restaurant called, I kid you not, Pad Thai (What can I say? We were apparently exhausted enough to need blatant direction) and ordered two plates of noodles and two cans of Chang.

“No alcohol today,” our waiter told us, shaking his head gravely. “Buddhist holiday. No alcohol anywhere in Bangkok.”

I almost burst out laughing; I could hardly believe our good luck: a bonafide excuse not to party in Bangkok! A legal and spiritual legitimization of our preference for peace and quiet that night!  “I wanted to party in Bangkok, you understand,” I imagined myself telling my friends back home, “but wouldn’t you know, we got there on a Buddhist holiday! Aw shucks!”  We toasted our good fortune with Thai iced tea and Diet Coke and spent the next few hours in a happy blur of haggling with vendors, eating 10-baht spring rolls from ubiquitous carts, and spearing fresh mango slices with long wooden tooth picks before finding another tuk-tuk home.

Street-side massage parlor, Khao San Road. Gee, you think that guy on the right realized I was taking a picture?

The next day, my “plan” was to wander. I’d heard murmurs of a palace and a golden Buddha, a river, bustling street markets, but had no real desire to actually seek them out. Bangkok and I were never meant to be, I reasoned; anything amazing I came across that day would be a total bonus. Besides, my favorite activity in any new city is the day-long aimless wander: it gets me lost in neighborhoods I’d never think to explore, familiarizes me with the layout of a city, and otherwise gives serendipity a chance to work its magic.

That’s a lovely thought, isn’t it? Lovely and kind of stupid. See, Southeast Asia this time of year is too damn hot to just wander around without a plan. By the time we’d finished breakfast at our hostel that morning, we had already knitted together a very loose schedule revolving around some kind of public ferry that ran along the river.

Several hours and many miscommunications later (let me just say this — if the price a tuk-tuk driver quotes you for a particular destination seems outrageously inexpensive, there’s probably a reason: he is taking you to his friends’ shops along the way, forcing you to visit tourist information centers in exchange for free gas for his vehicle, and then depositing you at a private tour company that most definitely gives him a commission for every sucker delivered), we finally arrived at the public ferry stop. We hopped on the boat, got off at the first stop that looked interesting, and managed to somehow end up at the following sites without any clue where we were going or what we were seeing. Blame it on the heat exhaustion and a lack of English-language signage and information at each place, but the fuzzy details provided with each of the photos below are unfortunately about all I can provide.

There was the river, of course

The kind of private boats we opted against taking. Lovely, I’m sure, but also 2,000 baht.

…and the boat we took instead, for 15 baht.

And the sights we passed as we putted along it

This is Wat Arun, as seen from the river. I wanted to get off and see it. I did. The story of why I did not is too long and boring to retell or, frankly, even fully remember. Purdy though, ain’t it?

And Wat Pho, which we only managed to find with a surprising amount of difficulty once we’d gotten off the boat

Wat Pho — which is either the name of this particular building or the group of buildings around it. Have I mentioned what a hard time I’m having with Thai signage?

Also Wat Pho. Or thereabouts.

Now, here’s what I can tell you about Wat Pho: it’s home to an absolutely massive, gold-leaf-covered reclining Buddha. At 43 meters long, it’s huge enough that you can’t even really tell what you’re looking at as you enter its temple. You’ll see a golden knee, a glinting elbow, or an absolutely gargantuan set of feet in viewing sections as you work your way down the length of the temple, but it’s only once you come to the far end of the building that you can grasp the entirety of what you’ve been looking at:

The most chilled-out Buddha you’ve ever seen.

The coolest part of the temple of the Reclining Buddha? The woman restoring the intricate wall paintings with a tiny syringe. That’s dedication.

And that – in addition to a little street-stall bargaining, a lot of time on the airconditioned subway, and many, many takeaway baggies of green papaya salad – was my trip to Bangkok. No parties, no arrests, and no crazy stories to either tell my friends or take to the grave.

And you know what? I’m pretty happy with that.

This has very little to do with anything. But it is in Bangkok, and it sure is happy-looking, isn’t it?

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3 thoughts on “Bangkok: Rated G

  1. I miss Bkk. Looks like you had so much fun! Would love to go back and finally check out the temples which I failed to do when I was in Bkk. That guy probably noticed you were taking some pictures. He was prepared he even made a peace sign. 😀 But that picture looks inviting.. Love the Idea of having a massage. 🙂

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