3/31/14 – 4/11/14: Bangkok, Thailand
Bangkok is overwhelming. Heat and humidity coat the city like a long wet tongue. It mingles with the smell of fried food, the din of traffic, the sticky sweat clinging to your clothes. History and modernism press together like two long legs squeezing into a tight pair of pants. They fit (just) but that doesn’t make them comfortable.
To maintain our equilibrium during our two week stay in the city, we immersed ourselves in air-conditioning and enough Thai iced tea to freeze a camel. I developed a daily ritual. Each morning I’d awake in our bite-sized Airbnb, pull on my loose Batik pants, ride down the elevator and walk straight into the mouth of hell. I’d smell the sulfur, melt into a puddle, and ooze down the street to the Swiss Hotel where I’d order two iced teas to go. These drinks fortified us, especially on the morning we decided to take a boat up the Chao Phraya River.
Chao Phraya is a serpentine body of water that slithers its way through Bangkok until it reaches the Gulf of Thailand. It’s also the city’s most efficient freeway. Getting there wasn’t going to be easy, though. We woke before the sun had fully risen and took the local subway to a sky train. We then jumped on a monorail that weaved through tall buildings until we reached the riverbank. That’s when we boarded a boat for locals. One minute we were comfortably breezing over city streets and the next we were jammed into a rickety boat hearing the shrill whistle of our boatman signaling departure. Boats like these speed up and down the waterway, carrying people to and from work like a city bus – stopping frequently and with just as little patience.
We quickly hopped off at the Grand Palace, home to the king of Thailand. Before you get your hopes up, no, we did not visit the king. We aren’t that special. We were there, instead, to enjoy its temple complex. Once inside we saw a podium saying “Free English Tour.” I signed us up and we waited 15 minutes while watching a band playing in white military uniform. They sat on a raised floor tapping percussion and string instruments. I was impressed they weren’t passing out from heat and exertion. Our tour guide appeared in the same military dress, buttons fastened up to his neck. Not a drop of perspiration wet his brow. Obviously the local people were used to these temperatures while all us westerners dripped like ice cream cones.
Our guide was a bit difficult to understand but he was a jovial fellow who encouraged us to rub a nearby golden stupa. Yellow, he said, is the color of good fortune. We then followed him to Wat Phra Kaew, also known as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. It was madness outside, like visiting Disneyland on the hottest day of summer. Hordes of tourists pushed forward, ticking the heat up a few more notches. As we drew closer to the door, he pointed out the figures surrounding the temple – golden half-human statues with animal legs: A lion, a monkey, a chicken. The designs were artful and incredibly detailed while the temple itself was a wonder of symmetry and craftsmanship. Beautiful and vibrant from tip to tip.
As is proper for any temple visit, we took off our shoes before crossing the threshold. The press of bodies didn’t let up when we entered. Carved out of a single piece of jade, the Emerald Buddha stands 66 cm high (about 26 inches). That’s not very big when placed high up on an altar. We could barely see the little fella. No pictures were allowed, so we all shuffled forward en masse; a human sandwich hoping to entice him down for a bite. Even from afar I was able to admire his handsome yellow costume. The Emerald Buddha wears three separate outfits, one for each season: summer, winter, and the rainy season. The king, himself, is the only one allowed to change his clothing. Don’t worry, he doesn’t allow him to wear white after Labor Day.
A quick walk south of the palace took us to Wat Pho, home of Thailand’s largest reclining Buddha. After the Emerald Buddha we weren’t expecting to be wowed, but when we stepped inside we were awe struck. The recumbent Buddha was an enormous 46 meters long and 15 meters high. That’s nearly half a football field! His body was covered in gold leaf, and the base of his feet was inlaid with mother-of-pearl depictions of 108 auspicious characteristics. Buddha can be represented in many different poses. The reclining pose illustrates his final passage into nirvana. We took our time walking around the golden giant, his knowing black eyes watching our progress while a slight smirk played across his lips. He certainly seemed blissful to me.
Afterward we took a boat across the river to Wat Arun, which contains numerous gigantic stupas covered in porcelain tiles. Apparently, when the Chinese immigrants were moved off the land where the Grand Palace now sits, a lot of broken tea cups and plates were left behind. All of this was used to construct the outer layers of these Buddhist stupas. It was chaotic and colorful, in a sun-bleached way. Look closely and you’ll find broken plates and chunks of tea cups splayed out like petals of a flower. We climbed the vertiginous steps, continuously gripping the rails, hoping gravity would be kind if we lost our footing. At the top we were rewarded with a view of the river and city skyline beyond.
Further up river we visited the famous Khao San Road. It’s the center of backpacker life in Bangkok. Abuzz with motor rentals, cheap food, and Thai massages, Khao San Road felt as grungy as a head full of dreadlocks. We ending up at a restaurant called Tom Yum Kung. Being partial to Tom Yum soup, it seemed like the right choice to me. We settled in for my favorite soup and panang curry with rice. Both were good, but it was an outdoor eatery with only a small fan blowing at us. Not ideal when you’re ingesting spicy food in 100% humidity.
The sun was beginning to set on Bangkok by the time we boarded a boat and started our long journey home. Floating houses and riverside markets blurred by while a constant spray of water cooled the air. It was dinner time when we arrived home. We decided to try a top rated restaurant around the corner. Recommended meal: the crab curry. Its consistency was foam-like. Color, orange. Flavor can only be described as “Hmmmmm.” It’s disconcerting when you don’t know exactly what you’re eating. But hey, we gave it a go.
During our time in the capital city of Thailand we weren’t ignorant to the burgeoning coup d'état brewing below the surface. You see, we happened to arrive while an unstable government was at the helm, weeks before an all-out military coup. Despite some violent protests, we weren’t too concerned for our personal safety. We’d read that the best thing to do was to avoid public gatherings and protests. That sounded easy enough. That is, until we emerged from a subway station in the middle of a protest. Oops! Masses of people stared at a gigantic screen where an angry man shouted into a microphone. Thai flags waved in the wind while our eyes bugged out of their sockets searching for an exit strategy.
We quietly threaded our way out of the throng and went straight into an indecently large shopping mall. I’m not sure what the protest had been about, but if it was about the size of shopping malls I’d understand the concern. In Bangkok, malls are strung together like massive cathedrals, filling city blocks. When it’s so devilishly hot outside, perhaps the best way to escape Satan’s grasp is to walk from store to store in free air conditioning pondering the meaning of life. Will this polka dot blouse give me fulfillment? Only God knows. Which is why it’s so convenient to have so many Buddhist and Hindu shrines spread throughout the city.
The most popular Hindu shrine happened to be just outside of mega-mall: Erawan Shrine. There you may seek Brahma, the Hindu God of Creation, for guidance. You can pay a local dance troupe to perform for Brahma on your behalf, or lay offerings at Brahma’s feet; either way, your prayers will be heard. Offerings may include food, drink, flowers, trinkets and more. From what I saw, Brahma has a fondness for bananas and red Fanta.
In the span of an hour we traveled from political protest, to retail therapy, to Hindu prayers, all within a city block. It seems, when navigating life in Bangkok, there are many different avenues at your disposal. And, if you still can’t find what you’re looking for, you can always try the world’s largest weekend market: Chatuchak.
We got happily lost in Chatuchak for a day, drifting through its 15,000+ stalls. Clothes, carvings, linens – it pretty much offered anything light enough to carry out with you. It was there that I had my favorite Thai tea in all of Thailand. I watched a master tea “puller” mixing the soft brown liquid with the skill of a painter mixing his colors. It was the perfect drink, oh-so-smooth with the perfect amount of sweet. Chatuchak was also where we fully embraced the lightweight attire popular throughout South East Asia – crazy pants and all.
We were wearing our new crazy pants days later when we visited the Jim Thompson House in central Bangkok. US military man and architect Jim Thompson settled in Thailand after WWII and started the Thai Silk Company. The bold designs and colorful combinations that define traditional Thai silk became known worldwide because of his company, and many credit him for helping pull a great deal of Thai people out of poverty by keeping it a cottage industry. Fun Fact: In 1967, at the age of 61, Jim Thompson mysteriously disappeared somewhere in Malaysia. His whereabouts remain unknown.
His house, on the other hand, remains intact. The Jim Thompson house was built to hold his antiques collection. He constructed it out of 3 separate traditional Thai houses. On the tour we admired his treasures as we wove our way from room to room. Our Thai guide was an interesting woman who spoke English with a unique accent. She elongated vowels like words had no end. She also had an unusual sense of humor. For instance, she explained that Thai people think it is bad luck to keep broken things. For this reason, Jim Thompson’s collection of chipped antiques was very odd. She kept obsessively pointing out items and saying “broken” with obvious mirth. Then she got a case of the giggles over the boys and girls chamber pots, at one point calling them “pee-pee pots.” I’d say the tour was worth it for its peculiar tone alone.
We didn’t spend the entire two weeks within the city limits. Eventually we ventured to the countryside for our River Kwai Tour. “The Bridge on the River Kwai” is one of my favorite films, and I didn’t want to leave Thailand without seeing its inspiration. Before moving forward with our experience, how about a very brief history on the bridge…
During the Burma campaign of WWII, Japan constructed the Thai-Burma railway in order to support their troops. The railway cut through undulating jungle and crossed many rivers, stretching over 250 miles. Hundreds of thousands of South East Asian civilian laborers and around 61,000 prisoners of war were subjected to forced labor during its construction. Over 100,000 people died during its creation.
Isn’t that a fun tale? I’m sure you can all see why I love a fictional film based on that wonderful time in our world’s history. On to the tour…
Our first stop was the Allied Forces War Memorial Cemetery. This cemetery was paid for by the British government to honor their fallen men and commonwealth soldiers from Australia. Having just read Unbroken and watched “The Pacific,” the plight of men who fought in the Asia-Pacific theater was fresh in my mind. Tears moistened my eyes as I read the epitaphs. A stray bullet, sickness, torture, physical exhaustion – they died in many ways protecting their families and their countries.
Afterward we drove to the JEATH War Museum. JEATH is an acronym for the countries involved in the construction of the railway: Japan, England, Australia, America, Thailand, and Holland. A reconstructed POW shelter was erected on the property. Within its thatched roof and bamboo walls we saw large-scale photographs from the war era. The black and white images showed the POWs cramped living conditions, jungle terrain, Japanese soldiers, railway construction, postwar homecomings. Standing in that sweltering heat I could easily imagine how painfully uncomfortable those shelters would’ve been, especially after a hard day’s labor.
In another area they had wartime artifacts on display: old military coats, utensils, weapons, and a giant undetonated bomb. Old post-war newspaper clippings spread across the wall. I read firsthand experiences of people who built the railway. It was through one of these articles that I discovered the story of a Japanese soldier who worked as an interpreter for the Japanese army. He returned years later to help retrieve bodies of the deceased. He felt a deep remorse for Japan’s part in the war and became a monk and a man of peace. He created the JEATH war museum to remember this time in our history.
From the museum we boarded long boats and motored up the Khwae Yai River to the now infamous bridge. Bridge 277, also known as the Bridge on the River Kwai, was bombed several times during the war. Technically it was built 100 meters upriver from where the current bridge stands today. Previously made of wood, this bridge is now made of sturdy black iron. It’s much smaller than the one depicted in the film, but you can’t have a film about a small bridge, now can you? That just wouldn’t fly in Hollywood.
The railway itself still exists, more for tourists than anything else. We found that out when we rode the train ourselves, across the bridge, and into the rural countryside. Tourists seemed to be the only passengers. We ate snacks and drank tea as we watched rubber, tapioca, and fruit plantations stream past open windows. We smelled the rich farmland that spread out from the riverbank below. After the train, we boarded a bus and endured a very long ride back to Bangkok. 4 ½ hours in rush hour traffic, a twelve hour day from pickup to drop off, but it was worth it to touch a part of history.
Now, you may have been thinking at the beginning of this blog that two weeks seemed an unusually long time for us to stay in one place, and you’d be right. But we had more on our minds than sightseeing whilst in Bangkok. In a little over two months we’d be arriving in India for our “India on a Shoestring” tour. That meant we needed India visas. There were two places on our itinerary where we could get them: Bangkok and Phnom Penh. We were placing our bets on Bangkok.
Katie (bless her heart) had gathered all the necessities to apply for our visas over the previous months. She’d printed the paperwork before our arrival, and now she was laying the documents out for our final signatures. That’s when the dominoes started to fall…
#1: We accidentally signed each other’s documents instead of our own.
It was a very painful discovery, especially after searching for nearby places to print and having no luck. No, pen had touched paper and our signatures could not be undone. We regrouped and vowed to get our documents reprinted at the embassy. A quick Command+P and we’d be back in business!
In the morning we walked to the India embassy, encouraged along by the heavy heat. We made it inside a DMV-style room with weak air conditioning and a short row of teller windows. Three old computers sat in the corner with internet access and a printer. Huzzah! The only problem was…
#2: The only available browser was Internet Explorer and it refused to recognize our digital documents.
Try as we might, we couldn’t get that dinosaur of a browser to recognize our ready-to-roll visa applications. Katie had no choice but to covertly download a new browser to the computer. It worked. The new browser recognized our documents! But one small issue remained…
#3: When we printed the documents the bottom of each page was cut off.
We attempted fix after fix, but it was no use. These carefully constructed documents would not properly print. At that point we had no choice but to…
#4: Fill out new visa applications online from scratch.
We took a deep breath and settled in to carefully reconstruct our applications. At last Katie was ready to print hers. It printed correctly! We nearly cried. But just as she was about to print my application…
#5: The man at the computer next to her accidentally kicked the power cable.
Dear Bangkok: When designing a building don’t install power outlets on the floor. Yes, the computers were plugged directly into the floor below them. A place where feet dangle and fidget as one desperately prepares documents that will determine the course of their life.
My visa application had vanished into the internet void so we had to start from scratch. Again. And mere moments away from printing it…
#6: Katie was abruptly told by a staff member that she must get off the computer immediately.
This demand took us by surprise since we’d already been on the computer for quite some time, and it wasn’t like there was a line of people waiting. We questioned it, but the woman was adamant. She insisted we give up the computer that very instant! Desperate for another minute of time we…
#7: Stalled / defied the woman.
Katie was sweating at this point, in a state of panic. If we couldn’t print and submit now we may not have enough time for the applications to be processed. We’d have to wait until Cambodia to try again and we had less time there.
Katie ignored the woman’s demands and glares while feverishly finishing the document. I did my best to distract her by standing up, pulling her attention away from the computers and toward my many questions. Suddenly I needed to know everything about the visa process.
Katie hit print and the paper slipped out. Finished. Complete. We finally had both applications in hand! Now we were able to get in the proper waiting line to submit them. The stress was still thrumming through our system, making us shake. We were grateful to the automated voice that relieved the tension.
She was your standard female AI, droning out 1s, 2s, and 3s as she called patrons to each window. But we were shocked to discover her unexpected enthusiasm for the number eleven. “ELEVEN!” she’d shout with gusto. Why this number received theatrical treatment, I don’t know, but it gave us the giggles and eased our pain.
In the end, everything worked out. One week later we had our India visas in hand. Don’t worry, we made sure the pictures matched the names.
Our roller-coaster ride through Bangkok was soothed by one constant: our Airbnb rental. It wasn’t much, just a one bedroom flat with tiny everything – beds, kitchen, couch – but it was ours. We’d stumble in, moist and exhausted, strip down to our undies and stand in front of the A/C unit feeling grateful. Yes, the beds were as soft as a stack of newspapers (not an exaggeration), and the fridge was haunted (it would sigh when we opened it), and all the DVDs were bootlegged (Iron Man 3!), but it was home to us for two weeks. And when you’re living in a city as overwhelming as Bangkok you need a calming place to rest your head at night. Somewhere where Thai iced teas are just around the corner.