October 15, 2012

On The Streets Of Bangkok

After a long 24 hours of traveling we arrived in Bangkok, the capital city of Thailand. 

Once again we found ourselves in a new place with no map, no guidebook, and no plan. It's always scary. This time around it was also a little sad because we knew it was the last time we would experience that feeling of changing continents. Bangkok is much bigger than we expected. It reminded us of Shanghai in that the phrase which comes to mind is shear urban sprawl.   

Luckily we had some major help transitioning. During our last couple of years in San Diego we became friends with our swim coach who is Thai. Chad's parents graciously offered to pick us up from the airport and take us into their home. Sobhon and Ratana are two retirees living the good life in Bangkok. We stayed with them for five days while they completely spoiled us. They treated just as they would their own children, and we are incredibly grateful for their friendship and help.

I think Ratana liked that we were so interested in Thai cuisine. She made it her personal mission for us to try as many new foods as possible. 

When we weren't eating at a mall food court (very common here), we were eating from food carts that line the streets. These days we do a lot of eating off of wooden sticks and out of plastic bags.

Sobhon spent his Saturday touring us around the most famous wats (Buddhist temples).

At first we were surprised how many wats there are all over town. But then when you think about how many churches there are in Europe, I guess it’s not such a big deal. Bangkok is also where the royal family lives, so the city has clustered complexes of beautiful buildings. The architecture looks so foreign to us, and we love it.

We have really enjoyed visiting the ornate wats and comparing the differences between each of them. The most obvious variations are the Buddha statues inside. 

Most are sitting, but they can also be standing or even reclining the point at which Buddha achieved nirvana.

We saw a solid gold Buddha and the holiest of them all – the Emerald Buddha – who is really made out of jade. He has three different outfits that change depending on the season (summer, winter, rainy). Sprinkled around the wats are other structures like stupas, chedis, and prangs. They are immaculately decorated in mosaic patterns, and sometimes even covered in broken pieces of china.

Sobhon showed us how to make offerings before entering the wat and suggested that we make wishes for our family. First we pressed a small square of gold onto a miniature Buddha. Then we lit sticks of incense and placed a lotus flower in a gold cup.

There are also wats that you don’t go inside of, but rather climb on, like Wat Arun

This felt like something out of Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the view from the top of the scary-steep steps was wonderful.

One day we were walking around a wat complex and stumbled upon a meditation center that we had heard about. We popped in to see it, and the next thing we knew a Buddhist nun was ushering us into a meditation class with four other foreigners. This was not something we had been planning for, but we were excited. We wanted to learn more about what exactly it means to meditate.

We spent three hours with a teacher learning about the different types of meditation, the theory behind it, the practicalities of it, and most importantly the reason for doing it: to get control over your own mind. Then we did our first 15-minute walking and sitting meditation. It is so much harder than you would think! Let’s just say my legs do not bend like pretzels and I did not have much control over my mind to ignore the pain.

Meditation is a lifelong commitment that needs to be practiced every day to be effective. We’re still trying to decide if we would have enough dedication for that, but it certainly is intriguing. At the very least, our meditation class taught us something new, and it will go down as one of our favorite experiences in Bangkok.

Other top memories will be doing seemingly normal things in the most unusual place: 
the street. In Chinatown food cart vendors fill the major thoroughfare which intersects with the nighttime food market. Nevermind the four lanes of car, taxi, tuk tuk, and motorcycle traffic, let's have dinner…on the street!  

Khaosan Road is one of the most ridiculous places we’ve come across. It’s like a movie director took every single stereotypical backpacker and mixed them with a bunch of Thai vendors trying to sell stuff to said cliché tourists. It is prime people-watching territory. So let’s get hour-long foot massages…on the street!

Bangkok feels like South America in that we’re pounding the pavement again in a big city where we don't speak the language. We have to be cautious of what we eat, figure out a seemingly impossible bus system, and hold onto our bags tightly. This is a city where you feel gritty and exhausted at the end of the day. On the other hand, even the nicest of neighborhoods in South America didn't have this:

There is an upper class in Bangkok that rides air conditioned trains, carries iPhones and iPads, and shops at high end malls. We got a good feel for this lifestyle while we were staying with Sobhon and Ratana. We also sampled it with a visit to Sky Bar, where wine is brought to your chaise lounge on a silver platter while Bangkok sprawls out all around.

We visited Bangkok at the end of the monsoon season. Luckily the rain really wasn't a big deal. Every day between 12:00-3:00 the sky would open up and it would pour for about 30-60 minutes. Sobhon joked that they have two seasons…summer and rainy. It was hot and humid (90° +) from the moment we woke up in the morning, but it’s nothing compared to the 104° they get on a day and night basis in the springtime. Sobhon then joked that their seasons should really be hot and hotter.

Bangkok is…tuk tuks, the sound of motorcycles, street food, the beloved royal family, friendly people who are genuine, friendly people who are scammers, fancy shopping malls, and third-world shacks. The city's smog and polluted river are a world away from the pristine nature of New Zealand, but it's all of these things that make Bangkok uniquely Bangkok.


  1. Awesome! So glad you and Steve had fun in Bangkok! I think you saw more of Thailand in a month than I did in 10 years of living there.

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