Stories from Bangkok: The Introduction

May 22-25
Drizzled rain sprinkles the city, cooling the humidity of the afternoon heat as the evening settles in. But we're dry, seated in a fuscia pink cab, maneuvering through the stalled traffic of Bangkok. A thumping beat grows louder as our taxi pulls in to a side stretch of the long road to our left. “Walk down,” the driver says, his arm extended, motioning down toward the street.  “You’ll see hotel.”

Khao San Road: Bangkok's backpacker hub
Caitlan and I take our first step onto the streets of Bangkok, staring ahead at a road alive with a pulse drawing from the movement and urgency within.

Travelers lugging backpacks pace through the strip, passing merchants spilling onto the road’s either side. Peddlers weave through pedestrians, carrying platters of black, scaled bugs on long, wooden sticks. Vendors sell food, leaning on carts of pad thai and smoothies, non-refrigerated meat and Thai-style crepes. Neon signs hang overhead, beckoning those into tattoo parlors and massage shops, restaurants and hotels. And the American music-- vibrating from rooftop bars and floor level restaurants as customer sit on the plastic seats in front, soaking in the life of Khao San Road.

With confidence powering the jet leg of our 21-hours of travel, we step forward, entering the heart of Bangkok’s backpacker hub and our home base for our first four days in Thailand.

Bangkok runs on a bring your own toilet paper system-- and, for the germaphobe abroad, a carry your personal surefire stash of always filled Purell. Public bathrooms usually cost 2 baht (7 cents), though it seems the more you pay, the less you get. The stalls reek and the floors are strewn with urine and dirt. All of which complement the hole in the ground or just barely a seat labeled as toilet for use. Toilet paper is an extra price should the bathroom fee collector-- seated comfortably at the bathroom front-- provide it. Which is why I’ve started packing a toilet paper bag, a mixture of hotel tissues and restaurant napkins.

Clever thinking.

The city is the sharpest blend of tradition meets modernity: the Buddhist shrines and temples of the Old City juxtaposed by the extensive skyscrapers of Bangkok’s downtown.

We spent late morning to early evening of our first day touring the Old City's Grand Palace complex-- a widespread ground of jeweled temples. The colors are stunning: greens and reds, whites and golds of the painted decor within the temples and shined stones of the exterior jewels. A 15 mile high and 43 mile long, golden reclining Buddha lies inside Wat Pho, the temple adjacent to the Grand Palace. I imagine the spiritual connection a Buddhist experiences while visiting the grounds must be powerful-- the splendor of architecture and intricacy of design adding to the grandeur of it all.
Instagram shots given I can't upload my SLR pictures. Above and below: The Grand Palace.

For your viewing pleasure. 
Thais are largely Buddhist and monks are commonplace in a society that places heavy value on their reverence. Monks wear the traditional orange garb, their heads shaven clean-- a symbol for having stripped down to the fundamentals of life's basic needs. But you'll see them with an SLR camera and using a cell phone-- necessities exempt from the monk list of unacceptable life luxuries. Caitlan and I had gone to the train station Friday morning to purchase a Sunday day ticket from Bangkok to Ayutthaya (Thailand’s historic capital city) and an overnight ride to Chiang Mai (a city in the north). There's a sign in the train station reserving an area for monks-- right across from a Dunkin Donuts and just in front of a golden, Buddha sculpture.

Thais are calm by nature and, from our experience, more than willing to help. We don't hesitate to ask for directions; They'll point in the direction if they understand and find someone who knows English if they don't. Cab drivers don’t always have cash for larger bills; We had a driver step out from the car, flagging down others to see if they had change for our 500 baht ($16) note.

We stick out as the few white faces among a largely Asian crowd; As two, female travelers in a country in which we don’t speak the tongue, we can’t be sure we haven't been taken advantage of, nor been ripped off. But we haven’t felt unsafe, nor ostracized by way of being different.

Caitlan and I enjoyed our first Thai massage our first afternoon, a 30-minute body rub in Wat Pho's Thai massage school. It took me a few minutes to adjust to having a Thai masseuse sitting on top of me, contorting my body as she dug her coarse fingers into knots I had no idea parts of my body could possibly develop. We went for a massage Friday night as well, seeing as the prices make it appealing-- between $4 and $7 for a 30 to 60 minute massage. I asked my masseuse how she soothes whatever hand pain massage giving causes the massage giver. But she smiled, for the question was past her English comprehension. And so I resorted to the thumbs up sign and smile, a universal thank you (or so I hope) for a job well done.
Travel book bible says that a flat rate, taxi fare is an automatic rip off. I initially attempted bartering the price down, asking for 40 baht before the driver would shake his head, rolling back up the window and rejecting our offer. It was Friday evening on our way to Chabad, Shabbat dinner that tables turned as we entered the taxi, I showing the driver my phone with the address written into my notes. “Meter," I asked, firm in my request.

And like that, he nodded his head.

It’s the little things we learn each day. You're not to accept a tuk-tuk (a bicycle taxi) from a driver that offers a 10 baht ride, for he’ll whisk you away to an illegal, underground gem business (so says travel book bible), forcing you to purchase his fake jewels. You barter your way down in markets, you carry a bag of toilet paper, you stir clear of insects on a stick and you don’t buy a converter. For Thai sockets take European and American plugs.

And, as learned one afternoon, you're to be hesitant of the young, male cab driver who speaks English and asks after your whereabouts.

"America is 2 million baht,” the afternoon's driver had commented. He looked into the rearview mirror, locking eyes as he smiled. “I have no money." He was dark-skinned, his hair just above shoulder length, oily from the heat of the day. He wore Ray Band sunglasses, thick dark frames shading his eyes from view.

The Oriental Hotel lobby

“Your English is good,” I commented. He teaches himself: books and music, customers and conversation. He told us he had come to Bangkok to work, moving away from his family of farmers in the northeast of the country.

He rarely sees them, he commented. "And I have no girlfriend." His friend the taxi driver had met a British girl in a cab, marrying her and moving to England. He had money, our driver added stoutly.

Clearly the be all to future happiness. Complements of the taxi driver's wise words.

Which is when I realized I had dug ourselves into a hole that neither Caitlan nor I needed to be; Whatever his intentions were, our driver with no girlfriend nor money had full control as to where he wanted to take us. My nerves surfaced as we passed gem stores—the paragraph in my travel book of tuk-tuk drivers and gem store scams pouring into the forefront of my mind.

And so the made-up stories streamed out as we answered his questions: Yes, we were on a school trip, staying in Bangkok for 5 days, leaving tomorrow and definitely not staying in a hotel. “Boyfriends?” he asked.

"Married!" we threw out, my fit of giggles reaching their peak as he pulled into the valet of the Oriental Hotel, a famed, five-star luxury hotel known as as top destination for celebrity visits.

“Friend on Facebook,” our driver said eagerly, handing back his business card.

And clad in gym clothes—Caitlan more socially acceptable in a skirt and tank top—the two of us walked through the automatic doors of the breathtaking hotel, letting go a deep breath of relief for we had made it past the gem shops and to our desired destination: an afternoon break in the gardens and lobby of the historic hotel.

Next time, perhaps a bit more caution.

It's the little things we pick up on each day. That’s the fun of this. Each day brings a surprise, a takeway lesson and accompanying story. The important thing is that we're safe-- though at the same time, taking advantage of the excitement each new adventure, every new opportunity can and will provide.

Street food along Khao San Road

1 Response to Stories from Bangkok: The Introduction

May 6, 2014 at 12:29 AM

Bangkok now a days has became a popular hub for all tourist..Bangkok is perfect place to spend time after a daily schedule of office..It is blend of beaches, temples, spa resorts, at some rate yummy street food, floating markets and shopping zones for all shopaholics.
Bangkok culture and tradition is really amazing.

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