Monday, November 17, 2014

Taming Bangkok

I am lucky enough to have been to most of the tourist-worthy attractions in Southeast Asia by this early point in my life, yet I had skipped the most obvious attraction of all — Bangkok, the tourist hub of the region. I skipped Bangkok on my around-the-world tour in 2010 due to political protests at the time, and also had bypassed it since moving to Asia. Needing to see my Vietnamese girlfriend, this seemed like an obvious place to meet for a long weekend.

I took a late Friday night flight from Seoul-Incheon on Thai Airways, and sat packed like a sardine in economy for 5 hours. Sadly, Thai Airways has the comfort level of an American airline. Thankfully I managed to catch a short nap and was awake to be greeted with a big hug by my awaiting girlfriend at Suvarnabhumi Airport at 1am. We took a shuttle to a nearby airport motel and caught an overnight nap — then back to the airport and train into the city on Saturday morning.

After finding our boutique hotel near the BTS Skytrain in the Sukhumvit area, we set off around midday for the tourist attractions of Bangkok. Bangkok’s train system is underdeveloped but what little does exist works pretty well. We took the Skytrain all the way to Saphan Taksin pier on the Chao Phraya River, and hopped on a tourist boat heading north. (I had read online about cheaper public boats parading the river, but the system was clearly designed to confuse foreigners to take the more expensive tourist boats from the pier [though still cheap by Western standards])

Our first stop was the Wat Arun, aka “Temple of Dawn”, on the west bank of the river. This temple is known for its tall and steep spires, with a nice view from the upper level of the Grand Palace and other nearby temples along the river. Quite the climb up.

After the 3 baht (!) ferry ride back to the east bank of the river, we walked to the Grand Palace in the hot Bangkok heat. Even in November, Bangkok is quite balmy, and Vietnamese girlfriend really wanted to avoid the intense rays of the sun … to avoid “looking like a Thai girl”, she told me, though the locals kept mistaking her for a local and kept speaking to her in unintelligible Thai anyway. You can experience how massive the Palace is by walking around the perimeter — DO NOT get sucked in by the scammers telling you that the Palace is closed for the day (the entrance to the palace is on the north edge of the complex).

The Grand Palace is indeed spectacular
The name of the Grand Palace does not lie — the Palace is very large and very impressive! You actually only have access to a portion of the grounds as a tourist, but the golden towers and ornately decorated buildings make great viewing. A warning, though: Grand Palace is crowded — try to get there early if you can. By mid-afternoon the tour buses have deposited thousands of tourists on the sight and you can barely get a picture of the place untarnished by the head of a stranger. The supposed highlight of the Palace is supposed to be the Wat Phra Kaew temple, with an Emerald Buddha on the inside. But when we got in the carpeting of the temple floor was packed with shoeless tourists, and the whole place reeked of dirty foot odor. All of this hype to see a tiny little green Buddha statue. Save yourself and your nose by enjoying the rest of the open air portion of the Palace area — majestic and befitting of the royal name.

Tired from the mass of humanity in the Palace, we caught a tuk-tuk for the short walk to the nearby Wat Pho, known for its giant Reclining Buddha. This place seemed much emptier, and we were able to get some individual photos with the enormous reclining statue before the throngs of tourists infiltrated the building. After the busloads of people entered, there was no peace for us to find in this temple.

With our day of tourism over, we set to explore the nearby Khao San Road backpacker area to find dinner. I had read about this area that no self-respecting Thai person would be caught here, and that description felt apt. It is a bustling and loud frenzy of foreigner-packed bars, shops, tattoo parlors and the like. Far from feeling safe among an ocean of similar-looking people, I had the opposite reaction and felt my guard go up as we walked along the crazy streets on a Saturday evening. However, we did eat decent Thai curry for dinner and found relaxation with 120 baht Thai foot massages.

I loved Wat Traimit at near twilight
Our plan for Sunday was to take the early train to Ayutthaya, the old capital, but I forgot to set my alarm and we woke up far too late to make the long trip north from Bangkok. So instead we saw more sights in the city. First Vimanmek Mansion, a large teakwood estate which smelled Victorian and mobbed by loud blabbing Chinese tour groups. Next, the National Museum, also large but which also smelled ancient. Finally, the Wat Traimit, my favorite temple in all of Bangkok. This temple contains the Golden Buddha, the world’s largest solid gold statue. This temple is underrated but should be on every tourist’s Bangkok itinerary. Smaller but cozy and not too crowded like the other temples, and every bit as ornate and majestic.

For dinner we found a comfortable, chic Thai restaurant in the Sukhumvit Road area, Suppaniga Eating Room, and went for an easy stroll along the road outside afterwards. This area feel prospering and hip, and like the Skytrain and the quiet area we were staying in was full of expats. “Where did all of the foreigners come from, and what are they doing in Bangkok?” I wondered. By their relatively sophisticated dress and the ease with which they navigated the streets and the Skytrain, these foreigners did not feel like tourists. Honestly, I have not seen more expats in an Asian city besides the obvious expats hubs Hong Kong and Singapore. It had me wondering if I could move here after the end of my Korean adventure.

Monday was a lazy day. We escaped the heat and sun in the upscale Terminal 21 shopping mall, themed like an airport and with each floor themed like a different destination — London, Paris, San Francisco, Tokyo, Istanbul. My girlfriend and I sipped iced blended coffees and enjoyed the relative serenity of a modern Western-style shopping mall. We had escaped the traffic, the noise, the heat of this massive metropolis. Indeed we had tamed Bangkok.

Another overnight flight back to Seoul … my 6th from Southeast Asia this year, and I was back for another groggy day at Samsung. The restless evening crammed like a sardine in economy class never gets any easier, and upon returning to the chilly, sullen Samsung Electronics headquarters fortress in the suburbs of Seoul I was already missing the easy hot days from my short — too short — holiday weekend to the Thai capital.

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