Monday, April 18, 2011

A five day layover in Bangkok

Wat Pho, also known as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha

Walking out of my hostel onto the tiny soi (side street) this morning, I ran into Johnny Depp. If he hadn’t started speaking in Thai-accented English, I may have had a minor heart attack. Dressed in full Pirates costumage, Johnny was a bit cheeky, and wouldn’t let me take his picture unless I bought one of his hemp necklaces. Alas, I had only 15 baht left, and I was forced to depart the country with only the memory of his likeness. I’ve never met an actual celebrity (unless some of the 1990s Bulls Dream Team counts), so I am counting this as my first.

Orchids at Pak Klong Talad, the Bangkok flower market
This is Bangkok. Strange and fantastic, a city of contrasts. The first three nights here I stayed near Chinatown, on a large thoroughfare near the main train station, Hua Lamphong. The hostel was almost sterile, so clean and bright and new that it was hard not to like it. Even though I slept in a room with 9 other people, they put new sheets on my bed and gave me a new towel everyday! I met cool folks and explored that area of the city; focusing my time in Chinatown (eating) and Silom and Siam (shopping, eating, and cultural exploits).

Khao San Road, early morning
My last three nights took me to the heart of cultural Bangkok, where I stayed on Khao San Road. The road itself is a backpacker’s hub, complete with bar upon bar, traveler upon traveler; a road that wakes up at around noon and doesn’t ever go to sleep (unless the glass piece/hemp necklace sellers somehow sell out). However, this hovel of guest houses and food is within walking distance to a  plethora of the cultural sites in the city- Wat Pho, the Grand Palace, the Chao Phraya and the National Museum. When I visit Bangkok again, I will not stay in Khao San… but at this point in my life, traveling alone and with no plan- I just had to do it. Luckily my hostel was down a quiet little soi, with zen gardens outside and antique cabinetry in, and made for the perfect escape from the mayhem.

Outside the MBK Center, a shopping mall with nearly 2,000 shops and stalls
In some ways, Bangkok is like any big city. Business men and women shuffle about in attractive suits, on and off the Metro, the Skytrain, out of the endless streams of pink and green cabs that fill the streets; all going somewhere important with important-looking faces scrunched around their cell phones having important-looking conversations. Young Thais fill the malls, scouring through racks of screen-printed tee-shirts and empire-waist dresses, haggling over the price of a pair of knockoff All-Stars, spending the only baht they have succumbing to the trend or creating their own.

Buddhist monks in the Phra Uposatha, or Ordination Hall, at Wat Pho
But in many ways, Bangkok is unlike any city I have ever experienced. It reminds me most of Istanbul; both caught in the midst of past and future, moving forward so quickly they are skidding on history like banana peels on a racetrack. Ironically enough, I spotted two separate (but potentially related) Turkish kebab food carts on Khao San Road this evening.

Delciously ripe okrong mangoes outside the temple
Which brings me to the part of Thailand that I didn't know about until I was here. Thais absolutely love to eat. I don’t know anyone in the U.S. that doesn’t like Thai food, and our Western love for the flavors and spices and combinations of this ethnic cuisine most likely stems from the fact that for Thais, food is life. From daybreak to daybreak, each curb in every neighborhood is host to a rotating circus of street food. In the morning it is usually fruit, juices, and roti, transforming into soups, meat and fish in midday, and noodles, rice, curries, skewers and veggies in the evening. Late into the night sweet stalls press on, selling various nuts encrusted with sugar, fruit and sticky sweet rice, mini donuts with glazes, Indian sweet balls, roti with fruit or chocolate, and some things I have never seen before, but look like noodles and sugar hardened into small lumps. It's as though everyone is a chef, and the world is their restaurant.

Pa Thong Ko, or Thai mini donuts, with chocolate and pandan drizzle
After almost a week in Bangkok, I have also come to adore the people. Every Thai I have met has been unquestionably friendly and hospitable. Whether due to 100 years of tourism or simply Thai nature, I felt welcome during my brief stay in the bustling city. Individuals tend to be reserved, but once approached by my foreign-self, open up with a warm and welcoming smile. While staring at a map on the street, a man came up and asked where I needed directions to, as he believed it was often easier in Bangkok just to ask a local than to stare at a map. Never would that happen on the streets of Chicago.

Wat Pho
Street food and hospitality came together the other night when I went in search of some (cliche, I know, but I hadn't had any yet) $1 pad thai. I wandered down the back alley by my hostel and found a host of vendors offering pretty much the same deal. Patiently waiting at a pad thai cart, a boy of about 13 came up and gave me a quick bright smile and screamed, “Pad Thai?!” loudly in my face. I giggled and told him I would like it with egg, which he whipped up in a matter of minutes on the wok. After handing over my 50 baht, he offered my change in his open hand, and quickly snatched it away when I reached for it. He laughed, did it again, and finally gave me my change. I then walked down the block in search of some accompaniments. Upon finding an empty pineapple cart, I glanced around, only to see the pad thai boy pop up from behind the cart and giggle. He was in all places! He quickly and meticulously cut the pineapple (fruit cutting is an art here), popped the bite-sized pieces in a plastic bag with a chopstick, and I had dinner and dessert. What a city. 

Even in Thailand, a world of endless food options... the arches exist.
Quintessentially Bangkok, the image most burned on my retinas from the trip was of a visit to the Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute (read: Snake Farm). Within the museum area, three Buddhist monks were as jolly as schoolboys as they wandered around the formaldehyde-filled tubes, poking and giggling at each other in their orange robes. Spirituality meets nature. Monks meet snakes. The institute is an educational organization run by he Thai Red Cross and caters to nationals and internationals alike. I had read about the Snake Farm in Lonely Planet, and decided to go the minute I read that everyone gets to hold a giant python. The Institute was started in the 1920s, and is second only to a snake farm in Brazil in research and prestige. It was started by a group of royals who were born in the year of the snake (not a coincidence, but an intentional connection between science and religion) in order to research venomous snakes and to host an anti-venom program for Thailand.

Displays of various poisonous snakes at the Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute
The Institute today has a fantastic display of venomous and non-venomous snakes from throughout Thailand and the world, as well as information on anatomy, reproduction, first aid, etc. Everyday the venomous snakes are ‘milked’ of their venom for use in anti-venom by the Red Cross. There is also a snake-handling session every day, in which the researchers taunt cobras and pythons into action, all for the viewing pleasure of guests. I definitely gasped out loud a few times, but they knew what they were doing. The culmination of the handling session was when each member of the audience was able to hold the giant python! The snake was born at the institute and has never bitten anyone…yet. He didn’t start today, and I was able to discover what it feels like to hold a 50lb snake on my shoulders. Quite cool and smooth to the touch, actually. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t want him to tighten his grip around my neck any more than he did.

Most of my past week in Bangkok was so unbearably hot that I spent a large part of every day in the mall. To those malls, I owe a great thanks. To the shopping district of Siam, I thank you for blasting your air conditioning to a level that will dry my layers of sweat in a matter of minutes. To the Siam Discovery Center, I thank you for letting me into a niche of Thai life that I have never before seen- young-tech-savvy-geeks. To the Siam Paragon, I thank you for entertaining me for hours on end with a constant myriad stream of shoppers, and for the most fantastic food court on the planet (there is gourmet street food in the middle!). I do not thank the MBK Center because it emptied my wallet.

Parakeets for sale at the Chatuchak Market, the largest market in all of Thailand
There is no doubt in my mind that I will come back to Thailand sometime in my life. Hopefully, when I do, I can explore more of the country than just Bangkok. But for this trip, I think the city and I got down and gritty in a real way, and I liked it.

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