Thursday, March 21, 2013

Sawaddee kha Bangkok! (Hello Bangkok!)

It has been harder to blog now that we’re in Thailand. Not because of internet problems or anything quite that simple. Instead, we use our downtime to research where we are and where we’re going next, so that leaves little time for consolidating our thoughts into a blog post. And we have lots of thoughts.

We arrived in Bangkok on Monday morning, with one night reserved at a hostel and absolutely no other plans. We vaguely thought we would head down to the western beaches, like Krabi and Koh Phi Phi, for a few days before coming back to Bangkok, but we hadn’t really looked into our options. We wanted to see how quickly we adjusted to the new atmosphere and go from there.

The trip from the airport to our hostel was a little overwhelming. We used Kuala Lumpur’s free airport wifi during our layover to figure out what to do: take the Airport Rail from the airport to connect to the Sky Rail. Take the Sky Rail one stop, and then walk to the hostel. Armed with directions and a hand-drawn map we copied from the hostel’s website, we were ready to go.

In reality, the trip was slightly more complicated. We had to figure out how to purchase tickets for both the Airport Rail and the Sky Rail. We had to understand that “Take Exit 4” did not mean “immediately go down the first set of stairs you see and wander around in traffic for 15 minutes.” We had to remember that talking about a short walk and actually making that short walk with 10 kilos on your back in wet, sticky heat are two very different things.

In the end, we made it to our hostel unscathed. We look back on that trip now and already laugh at ourselves. Bangkok is actually very easy to navigate, and we’re old hats now at buying Sky Train tickets and walking along the elevated walkways that connect our street with the station. In the picture below, you can see the elevated walkways that go most of the way around the roundabout, following the train. Our street is about halfway along on the right.

The first day in Bangkok, we might have checked into our room and never left again. Why leave the peaceful air-conditioning for that chaotic heat anyway? We didn’t have that option, though, because we had made appointments with the travel clinic down the street for the rest of our immunizations. So, out the door we went, this time after checking Google Maps and figuring out exactly where we were going.

After more wandering around, getting chased away from a staircase by a non-English security guard, and weaving our way through a parking deck, we ended up at what might be the right clinic. We filled out some paperwork and sat in a hot waiting room for about 20 minutes before finally being sent upstairs to meet with the doctor. Lots of paperwork and sitting around later, we were handed a prescription and told to take it downstairs and wait for the pharmacy. Several steps later, we had vaccines administered and were waiting for “observation” to make sure nobody passed out. They even let TJ in to hold my hand while they did it.

By the time we were finished with our doctor appointment, it was late afternoon, and we were starving. It was time to figure out how food works in this new country. We stopped at the first place that said “market” and wandered inside to salivate at all the food options. We couldn’t quite figure out if you paid before or after you got your food, and no one that we asked spoke any English. After lots of laughs and shrugs, a lady stepped out of her booth, where she was selling drinks, and walked us through the entire process, helping us pay and order. The paying process turned out to be pretty standard in Bangkok – you buy “coupons” (or in some cases, cash cards) that you then exchange for food. If you have any left over, you bring them back for a refund of your money. The result was exactly what we expected of Thailand – delicious and very cheap!

Our experience at dinner showed us that we really needed someone to help us understand the city. We wanted a local to show us around and teach us how everything worked. In some cities, we are able to find friends or friends of friends to do this, but we didn’t know anyone in Bangkok. So we decided to hire a friend for a day. We reserved another night at our hotel (by now we were realizing that it was much nicer than any hostel), emailed a private tour guide company, and asked if they had any guides available for the next day. You know, twelve hours from now. It worked! We got up early the next morning and spent the day with Ginnii.

Ginnii taught us everything we needed to know about Bangkok. After she met us at our hotel, we hit the ground running by grabbing a local bus to take us to the old part of the city. We literally had to run to it, since it didn’t stop where we expected it to. Once on the bus, a conductor comes around to sell you tickets, just like on a train. With coaching from Ginnii, TJ told the conductor “Sahm kun” (three people), and got the tickets we needed. Success!

Our first stop was the Grand Palace, where the king used to live, and the surrounding complex. I was so excited to see this. I read the book Anna and the King while we were preparing for this trip, and I couldn’t wait to see where much of the story took place. It’s even more beautiful than I could have imagined. I told our guide what I had learned from the book, and she said that the book and movie are banned in Thailand because (the movie especially) paints a negative portrait of the king. We walked around the grounds while Ginnii told us stories, including the parts of Anna’s story that were not true, and we went into the temple to see the Emerald Buddha, too.

We had planned to go to another big temple after the palace, but TJ and I were so excited to learn about modern Thai culture that we decided instead to wander around other parts of the city. Ginnii took us to lunch and explained what to look for to make sure the food is healthy. Street stalls that serve food on ceramic plates, for example, don’t have a reliable place to wash their dishes, so the dishes are often dirty, which means the food can make you sick. Sliced fruits are often not clean either, unless they are dedicated stalls that only serve one kind of fruit, or you watch them peel and slice the fruit yourself.

Ginnii also took us to a shopping mall, where she walked us around the food court pointing out different dishes and how to order them. TJ needed a new pair of sunglasses, so she took us to the department store and helped us buy some, showing us how to ask for a discount and how to pay for them. You wait until you are approached by a sales clerk, who writes down your purchase in a log before printing your receipt, instead of taking your items to a cashier.

After Ginnii left us, we went back to that mall for dinner that night. We ended up with a two-course meal of baked potato and crispy egg noodles. The baked potato tasted like home, and the noodles were covered in a delicious thai gravy. We’re getting used to this.

When we had our fill of good food, we left the mall and walked right into the Pro-Am Muay Thai 2013 World Championships. We had been scouring the internet all afternoon to find tickets for the competition with no success, but we soon learned that was because there were no tickets! We walked right in, pulled up a chair next to the ring, and watched a few different fights for the first round of the Professional competition. That was my first exposure to Muay Thai, and while it was a little too violent for my taste, the atmosphere felt like a festival, with cheering and music and carnival lights.


  1. When you get home, I'd like to hear what you learned about Anna and the King. SE Asia ... we fear what we don't understand. You guys are incredible!!

  2. I, too, would love to hear more about what you learned about Anna and the King! I just watched a documentary about Oscar Hammerstein II last night, which got me thinking about "The King and I" (and subsequently, "Anna and the King") and wondering how much of it was actually based on truth, and what parts were pure fiction.

    I'm so enjoying all your posts, guys. Thank you for taking the time to type it all out and post such great pictures and stories! :)

  3. Hire a Friend for the Day...what a concept!