Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Bangkok Part 1: A City of Intrigue

After landing at Suvarnabhumi Airport (pronounced "su-varna boom") I knew I was far away from home.  I had to stand in a long line to get through customs, and I was surrounded by a full spectrum of people from all around the world.  High tourism season has just begun here now that the "rainy season" is over, and the long line was a certain indication of that.  Bangkok is generally the first stop for everybody that comes to Thailand, but most people typically get worn out after a few days and head elsewhere.  Now that I've been here for a few days, I can say that I agree.

When I finally got outside, the hot and muggy weather hit me like a slap in the face.  I needed a water bottle, so I headed into this cafeteria area to get one.  It only cost me 10 baht (about 30 cents).  That was my first taste of seeing how cheap everything is in Thailand.

After getting to my hotel late in the evening, I walked to a 7-11 nearby.  Just on the short walk I noticed an array of powerful smells coming from all around - if you have never been to Asia, it's hard to describe.  I loaded up a shopping cart with an absurd amount of drinks and junk food, and a couple bottles of sunblock to boot.  My bill came out to about 4 or 5 dollars, and everyone in there looked at me like I was a some kind of big shot.  I was tired and went to bed pretty early.   Keeping with the theme of my trip, there was a problem with my room - it was situated next to a room of Aussie hooligans that came home drunk at 5AM screaming and hollering.  I didn't fall back asleep until around 6:30.  The next day I got a new room which has been much better.  Here is the courtyard of my hotel:

Wat Phra Kaew
My first tourist activity was to visit Wat Phra Kaew (pronounced "wat pra-kow") which is the most sacred Buddhist temple in Thailand.  It was a large complex if buildings, but the main draw of this place is a Buddha carved from a single large stone of Jade.  Unfortunately, the "Emerald Buddha" was closed off to the public by noon, so I just missed it.  I did, however get to see a lot of other really cool things.  The architecture was stunning.

I had to wear jeans to visit this temple, because shorts are not allowed to be worn inside.  Supposedly in Thai culture it's offensive to expose one's knees in a revered place such as this.  Skimpy outfits on women are also strictly forbidden.  If you show up wearing an outfit that isn't allowed, you have to wait in a long line to rent a loose fitting shirt and/or elastic pants.

A group of young girls approached me giggling and asking if they could pose for pictures with me.  After they got their pictures, I asked them to take a picture on my camera as well.  Here was the result:

After thoroughly exploring this temple complex, I stopped for lunch at a place across the street and got some green curry.  Supposedly green curry is a staple dish of the Bangkok area, while yellow curry is considered a southern dish.

Khao San
My next stop for the day was Khao San Road, which has a well known reputation as a "backpacker's haven."  This road was only about a 15 minute walk from my hotel, and I sort of planned it that way when I booked my hotel.  I wanted to be near the legendary road that I had heard so much about.  When I got there, I wasn't disappointed at all.

The whole place had such a unique and interesting feel to it.  Travelers from all over the globe were walking around with giant backpacks, long braided hair, facial piercings and skin covered in tattoos.  One couple would walk by speaking German, another would walk by with heavy Aussie accents.  Old British men that looked like they had seen it all were sitting down in cafes enjoying a beer (some of them sitting across the table from young Thai women).  The street was lined with shops selling trinkets and t-shirts, cafes with patio seating, pharmacies and hostels.

While walking, I saw a food vendor that was cooking up Pad Thai with spring rolls, but this one seemed to be special in some way.  They had attracted a crowd of people that seemed to keep getting bigger as I added myself into the mix.  In Asia, when white people see a crowd of other white people gathered around a vendor, they flock to that location instinctively.  I could tell the vendor knew today was her lucky day...she and her assistant worked furiously to satisfy this growing crowd.  For the other vendors nearby - all they could do was look on in jealousy.  I got a picture of her cooking, while the line of people continued to the right outside of the frame.  For a heaping plate of Pad Thai with 2 spring rolls, the price was only about 2 bucks.

I went back to the hotel and rested up a bit before dinner.  I asked the hotel front desk what they recommended for a good Thai meal.  She immediately referred me to a place called "Krua Apsorn" which was about a 10 minute walk from the hotel.  She showed me a picture of the front and I thought it looked a little shady - it didn't seem fancy at all.  Was this really a legitimate recommendation, or was it just some place that paid the hotel kickbacks?  I figured I would walk there and at least take a look.  Boy am I glad I did.  It looked sort of like a "hole in the wall" but this place was the ultimate Thai restaurant - completely authentic, affordable, and filled with local Thai people (so it must be legit).  I later came to learn that Krua Apsorn has been rated a top 100 restaurant worldwide by several critics.

I sat next to a couple of older Thai women who struck up a conversation with me.  I mentioned that I was from Chicago and to my surprise, one of them said that she also lives in Chicago.  She was just in Thailand visiting family.  She immediately began giving me advice on what to order.  When I tried explaining it to the waitress, I finally just gave up and let her order for me in fluent Thai.  I got both green curry and pad Thai (2 meals basically) for a total bill of around 10 bucks.  The food was unbelievably delicious and flavorful.  The dining experience was so good, it may have cracked my top 5 of all time.  Me and my two friends:

There's so much to write about I think it could fill a novel.  I am doing my best to paraphrase an experience that is difficult to describe.  My next post will include a bunch of other activities I did yesterday and today, including a story about me almost becoming the victim of a very elaborate con attempt.  Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more.

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