13 January, 2013

Thailand: Stepping out into Bangkok (Sunday Morning)

We awoke pretty early, and strangely rested. Where is the jetlag? Surely, by the afternoon, it will hit us. That’s what I assumed. But it never actually did. We never got hit with the time difference. I am not sure why, but suspect that there might be something about very large time shifts that make them actually easier to endure than small shifts like across the country, or from the US to Europe. It will be curious to see if we end up completely screwed going back the other direction, where we will spend 16 hours in a plane, and arrive at the exact same time that we left.

We left the hotel with the plan being to ride the Sky Train to the river, then take a boat up the river toward Wat Pho, one of the temples we were interested in seeing. On the walk to the train, which was only about 10 minutes, we found coffee at a café in a hotel lobby. We’d already had coffee in the room, but not much. Melissa wanted to order iced coffee, and I reminded her about not having the ice, because it is made of the water that we aren’t supposed to drink. Of course, by the 2nd day, we were drinking iced coffee. By the third day, we were drinking smoothies made with ice, and by the fourth day, we were drinking the water that they poured over ice from a pitcher at our tables. Not sure why there was a progressive increase of trust in that which we were specifically told to avoid, but what can I say? It happened.

The train was pretty cheap – I forget how much, but maybe 40 BHT ($1.33) for each of us. The train ride took us through part of downtown, and through some of the shopping districts, where the buildings and streets had large billboards, advertisements, electronic signs for many things that had a very Western feel. Exiting the train, we had our first test of directions: “Which way is the water?” By looking at the sun, and thinking about the orientation of the city, I was able to walk us in the right direction.

We walked past many people sitting on the side of the road. Some begging. Some selling things. Some just sitting there. It was a stretch of sidewalk that was under a bridge – either the Sky Train or a road, I cannot recall. And the same is true about the crowd that you find under bridges in Thailand as in the US. Some had mangy dogs with them. This wasn’t the wealthy part of town.

We arrived, somehow effortlessly, at what appeared to be a dock. There was a woman at a table who offered us a ride up the river on a long-tail boat: 2400 BHT. Not the boat we’re looking for. This would be the first (obvious) tourist trap, easily avoidable. Thank you. No. We want the public boat. She points us to go over to an adjacent dock, where there are over 100 people waiting for a boat to arrive. We wait along with the others, not entirely sure we’re in the right line, but it’s looking good. There are locals and tourists in the line. This boat will cost 15 BHT each (that’s 50 cents). Better than $80. When the boat arrives, people pile into it, and it’s standing-room only. The boat begins its trek up the river. We will be going about 5 stops, which I think was about a mile and a half, if memory serves correctly. When the boat stops, it’s only a brief pause at the dock, where you had better be prepared to make your way to the exit and get off, because they’re not waiting for you if you’re too slow. And they’d have no qualms about leaving half your party on the boat, if you don’t stick together. The view from the boat is interesting, from a people-watching, and “Wow! This is Bangkok!” perspective. But it’s not a beautiful view. The river is not clean, and much of what you see along the shores are either run-down docks, or some upscale hotels, in a strange juxtaposition of old and new.

We arrived at our destination, exiting successfully. And we were hungry. The decision about whether or not we were going to eat “street food” wasn’t even really a decision. Yes. We would eat street food. But there would be certain exceptions. Avoid places that looked vacant. Avoid places where it was completely unclear when the food was prepared (preferring to go for places where the food is prepared in front of you). And avoid ice or water (for now). Just past the dock, we are dumped onto a street that is not far at all from Wat Pho. And there are many vendors, and some small shops. Almost every street is vendors and small shops. It is almost impossible to know the name of the place you’re going, or the name of the street you’re on. Landmarks are everything. Plus, it helps to have a good memory for where you’ve been, so you can stand a chance of returning or telling others about it. And, if you’re accustomed to a city on a grid, then you can throw away those skills here, because Bangkok is not such a city. We stop at a vendor who is making Pad Thai, and share our first street food. I think I also got some sort of pork thing from a man who was vending across the way from the Pad Thai lady. And then Melissa got some juice of unknown origin, and I got a little bag of papaya. People don’t wear gloves while handling most food (not that I would expect they would – in fact, I was surprised to see when people did). So you don’t really know if or when you’ll be exposed to something that isn’t going to agree with you.

After getting enough food to last for a while, we found our way to Wat Pho, which was not far. It was a temple complex with a fairly large footprint, and multiple structures within. I cannot recall how much we paid to go inside, but it wasn’t too bad. Actually, now that I recall, it was free on this day. Maybe because it was a Sunday, or maybe it’s always free. When you go into the temples, you need to leave your shoes on the ground outside. It’s really best not to think about the fact that anyone could walk off with your shoes, and you’d be stuck in the middle of Bangkok, shoeless. You would like to be trusting and assume that no one would do such a thing, but it’s probably only accurate to say that very few people would do such a thing, and that it has surely happened often enough.

The temple was reasonably interesting, but it was not (for me) as exciting as seeing castles and churches in Europe, perhaps because I am less familiar, or perhaps because I know the architecture is more recent, and I happen to be disproportionately impressed by “really old things.” Nonetheless, the “Reclining Buddha” was impressive. It was a giant, gold, reclining statue of the Buddha. When I say “giant,” I mean that it filled the entire space inside the one building, probably about 150 feet long and 20 feet high. And gold. There were lots of Buddhas there. So many that I am not sure if it should be capitalized. White ones of marble, black ones of marble, painted ones. Hundreds. The architecture was neat, and we took a lot of pictures. But it was also very hot. The predominate ethnicity of the tourists at the temples was Asian, what appeared to be mostly Chinese. This was not nearly the case for other parts of the trip, as you’ll hear. I don’t know why I mention that, but I figured you might be curious.

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