Bangkok is like a brand-new friend who excitedly yanks you from place to place by your arm, dragging you behind as you haplessly try to slow the pace, chattering a mile a minute while grabbing some fascinating object offhandedly and shoving it eagerly into your face, not waiting even a moment for you examine and absorb it’s wonder before pushing the next thing into your arms for inspection.
I could feel the energy of the city through my travel exhaustion from the moment we landed and were ushered into a hot pink, 1998 Lancer taxi that didn’t go a notch under 80 mph until we arrived at the hotel. I had arranged to meet an old childhood friend who happened to be backpacking through Southeast Asia, and our paths fortunately crossed in Bangkok for the two days Annie and I would be there. A previous trip and a couple of weeks already in Bangkok on this trip made him familiar with the city, and we urged him to be our guide and mentor, as we realized almost immediately that we had not yet been hardened into the type of traveler Bangkok demands.
We ventured out to Khao San Road, the tourist mecca of street stalls hawking everything from food, jewelry, raw coconuts, clothing, even dried bugs for your snacking pleasure (I wasn’t so pleased). If I had been expecting dirty, smelly, watch-your-back, I’m happy to say my expectations were proven (mostly) wrong. Every corner, every tiny alley, every doorway was bursting with color, noise, movement, life. The smells alternated between rotting trash, hot asphalt, and the most delicious-smelling street food, the sounds a mixture of tipsy tourists and vendors hawking their wares, and the street felt like day time thanks to the neon and streetlights.
Photo Credit: Annie Bettis @ The Wayward Traveller
Wasting no time attacking my bucket list, we immediately grabbed a plate of pad thai from a street vendor for about $2.50 and dug in. Feeling appropriately sated, we set off to absorb Khao San and a few local beers. After several Changs (a few of which were served in a “tower,” essentially a pitcher but times 100) a few purchases of the wares on the street, and me shout-negotiating with a Thai woman who was easily 3x my size, as well as being “forced” to try the foul-smelling dried squid with chili sauce (I do NOT recommend), and possibly catching the last 20 minutes of one of Thailand’s infamous shows, we wound up back at the hotel after another hard-nosed negotiation with a cab driver.
The next day started slowly as Annie had a killer hangover (I suppose my tolerance is too high, I was only a little crusty), but we managed to get up, get out and meet my friend again for one of the most delicious meals I’ve had in recent memory – Tomyumkung Soup and Green Curry Pork. Not only did I want to dive into both and hang out for the rest of the day, I am now committed to finding the closest local Asian market and I WILL learn how to make that soup. But alas, Bangkok was calling to us and our friend had to go to the embassy to secure a visa for India, so we were off to the Grand Palace. We opted to take a water bus at my friend’s suggestion, and it was probably the best suggestion he could have given. The water is an incredible way to see this city, and since an all-day pass only cost us about $3.10, we decided to splurge and hop around the city using this mode of transport.
If you ever want to see patience and devotion in architectural form, I recommend the temples at the Grand Palace. Hand-tiled mosaic work in the richest jewel tones are everywhere, hand-maintained by local monks as part of their spiritual practice. It is humbling to stand before such a masterpiece and envision the thousands of hours that must have been spent assembling and maintaining it.
After the Grand Palace we made our way to Wat Pho, to see the giant Reclining Buddha smiling serenely at the ceiling of his temple, blissfully unaware of the bustle of tourists frantically positioning themselves below for the best photo. We wandered the grounds until my Havaianas snapped (dammit), then jumped into a tuk tuk back to the markets we had passed at the pier to get myself some new sandals (another negotiation session – much more fun than the ones I have to participate in at work).
After a quick stop in Chinatown where Annie and I definitely felt like the outsiders, we headed back toward Khao San to meet up with my friend again, grab a cheap meal ($2/person), a couple more Changs, and the most insane Thai foot massage on the side of the road (for $3 for half an hour of bliss on my worn-out, miles-walked feet and legs). Between the foot rub, belly full of delicious curry and pad see ew, and shampoo effect of the beers, Annie and I were struggling to keep our foreheads from banging onto the table, capitulating to our drooping eyes.
So we found a taxi that promised to use his meter, bid my friend farewell with a massive thanks for helping us get used to Thailand, and collapsed back in the hotel, the kind of exhausted you can only be after immersing yourself in a city that is bursting with stimuli to assault and tantalize each of your senses.