Okay, so some of you have asked things like, “Is everything really as wonderful as you depict? Has there been anything you haven’t enjoyed?” Until now, the questions to those answers (from our experiences in Australia and New Zealand) easily would have been “yes” and “no,” respectively. But now… I think I’ve finally found somewhere that just doesn’t at all agree with me.
Population wise, Thailand’s capital is roughly on par with NYC and, as you’d expect from a large metro are, it’s crowded, hectic, and loud. Really loud. By far louder than any other major world city I’ve ever been in. Walking along the streets, I have to basically scream so that Stephan can hear me – not quite what I consider ideal for fostering a peaceful and loving relationship. Another of my favorite things to deal with, the city is absolutely inundated with smokers… everywhere. It’s like one big plume of emphysema, stalking you like the Grim Reaper wherever you turn. Unfortunately, you can’t run and hide, as the sidewalks are almost impassable – jammed with vendors selling street food and tacky bric-a-brac, with a passionate emphasis on plastic flashlights, large knives (right?), and remote controls that look like they belong to the owner of the world’s largest collection of early-90s Magnavox television sets. I know I shouldn’t diminish the food stands, as Bangkok is the world’s number one city for street food, but as a vegetarian, the overpowering smell of meat in the relentless 107°F heat was just too much for me to bear. When I wasn’t dodging the amalgamation of seared flesh, cigarette smoke, and diesel fuel, I found myself desperately trying to evade the stray rib of a Hello Kitty umbrella to the eye, as everyone mindfully carries this accessory to stave off the blazing sun.
On a more serious note, though, there were a couple of problems I found that could be detrimental to the success of Bangkok as a tourism hub. First, it really felt like people were out to scam you. Having traveled a bit in Central and South America and Africa, I understand that this isn’t unusual; it just felt way more pronounced here. I didn’t get the vibe of ‘hey, welcome to our country, how can we help you spend your tourist dollars,’ but rather, ‘hey dude, I’d like to take you by any means possible.’ Of course, there are nice people who are willing to help; unfortunately, the dodgy characters seem to be the overwhelming majority around here. The second problem I had was the language barrier. I certainly don’t expect everyone to speak English and cater to my native language, but I wish people had been more open to exchanging some basic conversation in Thai. The night we arrived, I tried to give myself a crash course in some really rudimentary words/phrases to at least try to speak with the locals (or at least address them in their native tongue). Unlike any Hispanic country I’ve been to – and even Tanzania – people here don’t seem to greet you with the typical ‘Hello, how are you? Nice to meet you.” For me, it’s hard to practice a new language and attempt to acculturate when everyone seems more interested in taking your dollar than in exchanging pleasantries. Having only experienced the one city thus far, though, I guess I really can’t speak to these couple points on a larger scale. Maybe outside the callous and hurried environment of another urban jungle, the culture will be different. I guess we’ll find out as the next few weeks roll on. Ultimately, though, I think we all have different places that we just are not fond of, and for me, Bangkok seems to be that place.
Alright, now with all of the dissatisfaction out of the way, let’s move forward with what we were able to enjoy – some of the sights around Bangkok’s Old City. We ultimately skipped the Grand Temple (I know… everyone says it’s a must-see if you’re in Bangkok), as I just couldn’t do it. We went basically as soon as it opened, shortly after 8:30 a.m., on a Wednesday, what we speculated would be a more relaxed time. On the contrary, it was astonishingly flooded with people; we couldn’t even navigate the main courtyard. Moreover, it was 500฿ (~$14 USD) per person. Again, I know, this is totally inexpensive in the grand scheme of things, but it’s vastly expensive in comparison to the average prices here ($20 USD can get you a reasonable room for a night). We just couldn’t see spending $30 to torture ourselves with any more crowds. We did, however, visit Wat Pho, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, and the Marble Temple, a smaller religious site several kilometers northeast of the other Old City temples.
Wat Pho, one of Bangkok’s oldest temples, was the first Buddhist temple we visited, and was definitely worth the stop. The temple site was originally developed in the 16th century, and was significantly overhauled in 1788 under the direction of King Rama I. More than just a site of religious importance, Wat Pho was also Thailand’s first center for public education. Today, the temple’s most iconic feature is a 46-meter long (15 meters tall), gold-plated, reclining Buddha statue that was added to the site in 1832. Lining the wall behind the venerable idol are 108 small bowls for dropping coins, representing the 108 acts of character (temptations) that led Buddha to nirvana. The grounds of Wat Pho extend far beyond this sanctuary, and we particularly enjoyed wandering amongst the 91 stupas – decorative mounds of intricately-laid ceramic tiles.
Though perhaps not as rich in history as Wat Pho, I was particularly taken with the Marble Temple (Wat Benchamabophit), a much smaller complex built in 1899 under the reign of King Rama V. Situated several kilometers northeast of the other Old Town sites, the Marble Temple is a bit more serene – away from the hustle and bustle of the overwhelming crowds. Though more modest in size, the temple is by no means lacking in beauty – layers of vibrant red roofs adorned with ornate, gilded gables and striking finials drape the stark white, Carrara marble exterior.
In addition to selecting and touring a couple of temples (there are dozens scattered about the sprawling metropolis), we did make an effort to explore the Old Town center and take a stroll along the Chao Phraya River. We even took a short tuk-tuk ride down Yaowarat Road in Chinatown. Once a popular mode of transportation for locals in Bangkok, tuk-tuks are now catered solely to tourists by cabbies looking to make some easy cash. We figured what the hell, and gave up a few baht for the kitschy experience. While slogging through the insufferable heat, Stephan was even able to find himself some authentic Bangkok street food for lunch. At the recommendation of a kind local, he opted for the pork entrails soup (I may or may not be gagging as I type this), which he enjoyed wholeheartedly. Finding lunch was much more challenging as a vegetarian, and I ultimately opted for a fresh fruit smoothie (which was amazing, by the way). One thing I can get on board with in Bangkok, though, is the price of street food – Stephan paid a mere 65฿ ($1.85 USD) for his soup, while a smoothie the size of my head cost a measly 40฿ ($1.10 USD).
Overall, I think it’s safe to say that I am definitely not Bangkok’s biggest fan. In a way, though, I am kind of glad I found such discontent with the city. I feel as if nearly every place I’ve visited I have loved on some level, or at least really liked. Strangely, I was beginning to wonder if I was seeing the world through rose-colored glasses when traveling – something that, unconsciously, was keeping me from fully perceiving reality. I think this was a much-needed wake-up call that I am not going to like everywhere I visit, and that, all told, I shouldn’t feel obligated to. We’re all entitled to find our own special places – the places that make us feel comfortable, blissful, inspired, and invigorated – wherever they may be.
Yeah, Jenn, I feel the same way about those temples. Wat Pho seems garish, Wat Benwhatever is absolutely gorgeous, graceful, enchanting. What, pray tell, is the meaning of all those statues with their hands in different positions? A couple have their hands up, palms forward, then one with left hand up, right down, then right up, left down, then both down…what’s the message, do you know? Noise and crowds are not for me, either, so I have cancelled my reservations for a vacation in Bangkok.
They’re all Buddha. There are, I think, 4 general poses in that temple – going off memory, one hand up is “forbidding his relatives to fight,” two hands up is “calming the ocean,” cross-legged with one hand up and one hand in the “OK” sign is teaching, and the other cross-legged pose was, uh, something to do with Mara but I can’t remember what.