Monday, March 21, 2011

Bangkok, Thailand

Getting There

Our travel from Sydney to Bangkok turned out to be a long day of planes, trains, and automobiles. We woke at 5 am, said our tearful goodbyes and thanked our friends for their hospitality, and took a shuttle to the airport. Upon checking in we learned that we needed proof of leaving Bangkok within 30 days of arrival. We had planned to play SE Asia by ear, and travel via train and bus, so our tickets to leave Bangkok were for four months after we arrived. The poor guy who gave us the bad news was really hesitant and had to check with his manager a couple times, but sure enough they were not letting us on the plane. Without the proper tickets we had to scramble down to an Internet cafe and book the cheapest flights we could find to Vietnam just so we could board the plane. In the end it worked out fine since we planned to go to Vietnam that month anyway, but the plane was about $150 more than the bus we would have taken. We later learned that this rule is rarely enforced , and sure enough after our ten hours in the air the Thai customs agent made no request for our proof of onward travel.

After withdrawing some Thai Baht (currency) we made our way to our hostel via two trains. We got off our second train very tired and disoriented, having been awake for 20 hours. After walking around many dark, crowded, foreign streets lugging giant bags, and looking at maps for half an hour we figured out which way was up and found our hostel. It was located down an alley off a side street which had a bustling night market going on. Had we not been so tired we would have been more tempted by the delicious scents wafting from the food carts but it did get us excited for the food we would be enjoying soon enough. The hostel ended up being in a really good location near the skytrain line and it felt very safe and quiet. Sleep came fast.

Bangkok International Food Fair

The next day after a good night's rest we enjoyed our free hostel breakfast, got our bearings, and set off to explore. We didn't make it too far before we stumbled upon the Bangkok International Food Fair. Several streets were lined with tables of food. Each table had a chef and a flag representing the country it was from. There was bright colored deep fried flowers from Thailand, sautéed shark fin soup from Japan, giant bowls of curries and Naan from India, and the good old USA was represented by a sandwich artist from Subway. There were several stages of live music, Barista competitions, and contests. At about six, people began to gather at the main stage. Intrigued, we took a seat and watched the show. Camera men with news cameras filtered in. The front two rows had reserved signs attached, and the people who filled them were dressed to the nines and seemed very important. They had two nice hosts who introduced the events throwing in a little English here and there so we knew what was going on. First up was a celebrity chef cooking competition. Next was a fashion show featuring four women who strutted their stuff while carrying platters of food and donning hats covered with fruit, sushi, and toast. After the fashion show they moved into some music first featuring four guys wearing chef hats banging on pots and pans. Next was a female singer with a beautiful voice. After her set the hosts interviewed her and we found ourselves laughing along with the crowd even though they were speaking Thai. Apparently the hosts noticed us laughing along seeming to understand and they felt it necessary to call us out. In the middle of the interview they started talking to us and the cameras zoomed up tight on our faces which were projected on the big screen that was broadcast over the whole event. The hosts asked us if we knew what was happening and noted that we were obviously tourists. We admitted that no we did not know what was happening and yes we were tourists. We were more than a little embarrassed. They warmly welcomed us to the country and said they hoped they made a good impression on us. After that excitement we made our way back to the hostel stopping at a 7-11 (they are everywhere!) to pick up a beer and a Gatorade. Our hostel had a rooftop garden so we enjoyed our refreshments up there and exchanged travel tips with a nice French backpacker. Not bad for day one.


Thailand's food is the best! We already have some reoccuring dishes and are so glad we will have so much time to enjoy them. At the train stations, and in the streets there are booths with tons of fresh tropical fruit (we love Pomelo, pineapple, and mango - and it's been a treat to try all kinds of new fruits). They also make fresh squeezed juice with all kinds of fruits and veggies. A lady outside our hostel makes the best crepes stuffed with all different things, we got one with a banana and chocolate. And another of Mike's favorite treats are these small, delicious waffles stuffed with your choice of maple, chocolate, cream, or fruit fillings. I love getting Thai Iced coffee and Iced tea, it's pretty sweet but very refreshing to have on a sweaty, sticky day of walking around the town. At the night market below our room, we have a favorite street vendor (who has even memorized our order) of Chicken Phad Sei Ew. Also, of course we've had our share of the classic Phad Thai (but I have to say On Rice in Bellingham does a really nice job of every dish we've had). Sometimes the language barrier can make ordering a challenge, but it's usually pretty easy to just point and smile (this only resulted in a couple mystery meals, "oops, I thought that ginger was noodles!") One surprising place to eat a delicious, cheap, meal is in the mall. The malls here are a lot different than at home. They are really fancy, one of the only places you can spend some time in air conditioning, and decorated with chandeliers, waterfalls, and elaborate displays. The food vendors sell the same food you can find in the streets, but sometimes it's nice to be able to sit down and enjoy your food inside. There, we enjoyed some spicy bbq pork skewers, and I found a new favorite in Papaya Salad. It's really spicy because they take a young papaya, shred it, and smash spices into it using a mortar and pestle. In my opinion, the best way to end a long day of exploring is by sharing a dish of mango and sticky rice, delicious!

Exploring Bangkok

We didn't do any organized tours here, and instead took to the streets (and rivers) on our own. We've found so many valuable travel websites to get directions, advice, and itineraries. These are so helpful to bring along, because if you get in a pinch you can just point to the address and a taxi driver will know the way. We haven't used many taxis here because the public transit is really easy to use. Every day we take the skytrain over the busy streets, although it is very uncomfortable at rush hour when you are crammed in with hundreds of sweaty people. Every time the door opens, more rush in (Mike has a huge advantage when it comes to breathing, being about a foot taller than most).

We also have explored town using the river boats along the waterways. This is sometimes an adventure in itself, going by all sorts of temples, giant buildings, and houses built on stilts over the water. One day we took the boat to Khao San Road, the famous backpacker street. It's full of vendors, resteraunts, hostels, and nightlife. Fun to see, but we're glad we decided to stay a way off the beaten path. While buying a t-shirt, one nice women laughed at Mike for ordering a medium, "Haha! No! Large! You giant!" She forced him to buy a large :) It was pretty funny (and the shirt does fit).

We visited the Wat Pho temple, home of the massive reclining Buddha statue. It is a gold statue that takes up an entire building. It's beautiful and very detailed. Behind the statue there is a large row of metal bowls, and you can buy a bag of small coins to drop in for good luck. It makes for a neat addition to the atmosphere, always hearing "plink, plink!"

Floating Market

We visited a floating market, which we've heard has changed a lot to target tourists, but we still enjoyed our visit. You get to take a small row boat and be paddled around to the different stalls selling food, clothes, and souvenirs. There are also vendors in boats paddling around selling fruits, and mobile phad thai making stations. We bought a beer (for Mike) and a coconut (for me) to drink while in the boat, very fun! There were so many boats in the small river that at times there were traffic jams, and we ran into several other boats.

Animal Encounters

Sometimes when you take trips out of the city, you have unexpected stops along the way, usually involving animals. One of these was a place where you could ride elephants (we didn't do that because we will be going to an Elephant sanctuary with Brian and Martha). We did get to feed them a basket of bananas, it was crazy how fast they took the bananas, bunches at a time, with their trunk. We also fed a lot of koi and snapper fish food in a lake.

Teak Woodcarving

Another place we found fascinating was a teak woodcarving shop. There were about 20 people carving elaborate jungle scenes into tables, statues, and wall hangings. They were so talented, and we enjoyed watching them.

Tiger Temple

Perhaps our most adventurous event in Thailand was a visit to the Tiger Temple Forest Monastery in Kanchanaburi. It used to be a place for Buddhist monks to live and study, but has evolved over the years to be a giant animal sanctuary that tourists can visit or live and volunteer at to study both tigers and Buddhism. The first tiger cub was brought to a monk after being rescued by local villagers. Poaching is still pretty common here, and the cub was left after it's mother was killed. The monks raised the tiger, and the trend continued, more and more rescued tigers were left in their care. Now, they host 17 tigers, some of them have begun breeding. They are currently building centers to train the cubs to be rereleased back into the jungles. People have brought many other animals to live at the temple too, and we saw camels, wild boar, cows, buffalo, goats, and chickens roaming freely.

We were a bit nervous when we saw a medical helicopter pad near the entrance, but they have never had an attack and people visit daily. The process of actually petting the tiger was exciting and a bit strange. You get in line, and then a local guide and volunteer holds your hand while another guide takes your camera to take pictures of you with the giant cats. There were several rules, no wearing red or pink, no sunglasses or purses, only touch the tigers backs near their tail. It felt safe having people telling you what to do and guiding you around, and the tigers were mostly sleeping or lazy, but my heart was beating really fast the whole time I was in the tiger habitat. A couple picture suggestions were funny and a bit awkward, they kept wanting us to hold up the tigers tail. I guess maybe sometimes it works, but these photos turned out to be more of a joke to us.

After visiting the giants, we had the pleasant surprise of getting to spend some time with the cubs. They aren't always out, but we had good timing and got to pet them, watch the monks play with, train, bottle-feed, and bathe them. That was the highlight of my day. They act just like a bigger, more ferocious house cat. All in all a neat experience, that I don't think could be recreated anywhere else in the world.

Other Highlights

One of Mike's favorite moments was sitting on top of our rooftop garden with a Chang beer during the biggest thunder storm we've ever experienced. I stayed in the room, and after seeing bright flashes and hearing thunder that sounded like gun shots continuously for a bit, I ruined his fun and drug him down back to the room. The window shaking was still intense and exciting, but I felt at ease knowing he wasn't being struck by a bolt of lightning :)

One of our best dinners here in Bangkok was with our old friend Trevor. Trevor was a friend from WWU who we hadn't seen in years. He moved to Thailand to get his Master's degree, and has lived here working for World Vision for a few years. He brought his friend Youi (not sure how to spell it), who was really cute and fun to chat with. She works at a Thai news station, and had recently volunteered Trevor to sing on stage with a Thai Pop Star in front of 10,000 fans. It was fun to hear that account and see pictures. She is from Thailand, and we all decided it would be best if she ordered our dinner for us, we had 6 delicious dishes (family style) that we never would have known to order on our own. Trevor also generously brought us an old phone he had so that we can use it if we have an emergency. Cell phones are so much easier here, there is no contract and you just buy a sim card and add minutes on the street corner. Thanks Trevor!

Another great dinner was with our old friends Sarah and Davey. They are from Enumclaw, and had just completed a trip similar to ours (only they stayed in SE Asia the whole time). It was their last night in Bangkok before they returned to WA, and we had just arrived. They had so many great tips on places to go and things to see. We ordered a tower of Chang beer and some Thai food and chatted for a long time. We felt spoiled seeing some great familiar faces halfway across the world, and it made the transition to an unfamiliar place pretty easy.

Our hostel has an awesome feature, in that they allow long term luggage storage for free. We were able to be true minimalists and leave all but our small backpacks with them. It was definitely a challenge(especially for me) to get a month worth of clothes and toiletries into such a small bag, but the payoff is worth it for sure. Not having to lug around our 30 pound bags has made a big difference in travel days. Bangkok is turning out to be a great jumping off point for our 4 months in Asia, and we're sure to return several times before heading home. Next up: Vietnam and Cambodia, then back to Thailand to meet up with friends before starting our teaching project.

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