“Behind a bend of the Maenam, the entire town of Bangkok appeared in sight. I do not believe that there is a sight in the world more magnificent or more striking. This Asiatic Venice…”
~ Ludovic Marquis de Beauvoir
On the Chao Phraya River from A Week in Siam in 1867
After the longest flight of my life, I found myself sleepily in the customs line at the Bangkok airport, chatting with the older Indian gentleman who had been on the plane beside me. He was so kind, informing me of which line to be in, where my luggage would be, and what to expect in Bangkok. A business traveler, he informed me that he made this very flight roughly “1-2 times per month,” (I can’t even imagine) and even owned his own place in Bangkok. “You will fall in love with Thailand,” he assured me, as we parted ways, “You won’t want to leave.”
The concept of falling in love with a place over time is certainly true in Thailand. Unlike other cities in the world that take you in immediately and make you want to be in love (the feeling of oh – I just want to share this city with everybody I know!), Bangkok does not immediately inspire that same romanticism.
The reasons for falling in love are different and more difficult to uncover. I have not fallen in love just yet. But Thailand grows on me every-day.
There is a phrase here to describe a certain mindset: “Thai time.” In its essence, I think it comes down to the idea that everything takes time, it will all work out, it’s okay, it will happen in its own time.
Thai time would never fly in the American corporate world.
But here in Thailand, it makes sense, and then it doesn’t make sense too. Things happen on a slower scale, and patience is key. But the impatience of drivers on the streets and making decisions in the marketplace? Rushed, rushed, rushed.
Following a rather speedy drive to our hotel down a large highway, I remember thinking as we passed palm trees and skyscrapers that Bangkok looked just like Miami. This was a pretty inaccurate first impression, but the familiarity of the night-time driving scene was comforting. Accelerating down the highway, our driver made a sudden sharp turn onto a ramp which led down an extremely narrow alley street. We then proceeded to ramble around in a network-maze of little side streets and alley-ways for a good bit before turning into the parking lot of the hotel. I realized then that herein was a snapshot of Bangkok: a massive, sprawling city of old and new, wide highways and constricted alleyways, ramshackle and modern.
In all its beauty and its chaos, Thailand has been a shock to the senses, in a good way. Cars and motorbikes speed past on busy roads, drivers honking left and right and weaving from lane to lane. One would think that Thai people were always in a rush, anxious to get to their destination.
In fact, the opposite is true. There is a certain pace to life here that I cannot yet put my finger on. It’s laid-back and strident – peaceful only to an extent. And there’s variety everywhere. From the cooler, forested region of North Thailand (Chiang Mai) to the brilliant white beaches of the islands (Phuket to Koh Phi Phi), Thailand is truly a study of contrasts.
Island life is a whole different ball game, so I’ll leave that for later. But I guess I could say that I’m falling in love with Thailand on “Thai time.”
Here are some stories from 24 hours in Bangkok:
1. Running in Bangkok: What An Ordeal
Factor 1: the heat. Factor 2: the humidity. Factor 3: there is nowhere to run really except for this one park by our hotel, but the entrance to the park is actually in the opposite direction from all logical directional reasoning, so you have to run AWAY from the park, down 3 different alleyways, past the angry barking dog and the cemetery, sidestep parked motorbikes, almost get run over by motorbikes, and then finally get to the park, where you find that you’re actually too tired now to run inside the park so you just go back but also get lost on the way back too.
2. Wandering the Chatuchak Market
The better part of our morning was spent at this weekend market that stretches for miles and miles off of the Mochit stop on the BTS line. Filled with everything from vintage sneakers to little porcelain dishes, fake leather bags, and handmade jewelry, the market is overwhelmingly large. Wandering towards the covered area near the back of the market, we discovered a hidden gallery area of little artist studios selling sculptures, watercolor paintings, and tapestries. This quieter section, wedged between large booths of various knick-knacks, was my favourite part of the whole market.
One could spend a whole morning or afternoon there examining all the wares, but it was too much for us, so we bought some orange juice and headed to the nearby park.
3. We were most probably, definitely swindled by a tuk tuk driver and his friends
In the second part of the day, we attempted to make our way to the Grand Palace, which was not the most awesome strategy because (poor planning on my part), the palace is on the other side of the city from the market. After asking the man at the BTR station several times which station would be best to get off for the Grand Palace, (he rattled off a bunch of information in Thai and then pointed at two different stops?), we figured that we would just follow the crowd of tourists embarking the train. Long story short – getting to the Grand Palace requires taking a tourist ferry, which is easy to find if you’re looking for it and completely miss-able if you’re not.
We were definitely not in the right place when a shrewd taxi driver took note of our confusion and kindly offered his services. “Grand Palace?” he gestured widely, cigarette dangling precariously from his hand, “No problem. For you? 150 baht.”
“But is it close?” we countered.
“No, no. Very far. Very very far,” he shook his head vigorously.
So we looked at each other and shrugged and got in his tuk tuk (our first ride of many!) and proceeded to cling to the sides of the vehicle for the better half of the afternoon. He drove us many places, eventually stopping at the Grand Palace, but along the way, we visited – in no particular order:
A Chinese Temple, where an older Thai man inside chatted to us about a “factory store.”
A random factory store open “especially for us today” so we could buy “a nice souvenir from Thailand.”
We stopped for gas.
And last, but certainly not least – the Grand Palace.
4. Visiting the Grand Palace with 7 billion of our best international friends.
The Grand Palace, true to its name, is comprised of multiple gorgeous temples and courtyards, and is surrounded by a tall white wall. It can be really overwhelming to try and find the entrance to the palace, but as long as you follow other 7 billion people there also trying to find the entrance, you’ll have no problem. Once inside, the “line” (really it’s just a crowd of very confused people) to buy tickets is on the left-hand side, right before the actual entrance into the Grand Palace itself. Once inside (again, shoulder-to-shoulder with all of your best international friends), we basically did one big loop of the area, and then stopped inside some of the temples.
A couple things about the Grand Palace:
- In respect for the king, you must cover your shoulders and knees when visiting. I brought a long scarf that has ended up being one of my most essential items here.
- There’s some confusing sign about needing your passport to get in at the entrance, but this is not so – you only need a ticket, which costs about 500 baht (about $12).
- They only take cash at the ticket window (and in most places in Thailand, in fact). I have only used my travel credit card twice while here: the movie theater and TESCO-Lotus, which is the Thai equivalent of Walmart.
- Some of the temples might be closed until after 2pm due to religious ceremonies taking place in the afternoon. Also remember that you have to take your shoes off to go inside the temples.
The Grand Palace is gorgeous though, filled with unique architecture, gold, and jeweled mosaic work everywhere. I loved how the afternoon light streamed in through the gold columns and scattered on the tile-work below. Oh, and the smell of incense and chrysanthemum garlands permeates the air.
All in all, I was pretty proud of us for seeing as much as we did in one day, jet-lagged and in the heat. The heat here is no joke. Sometimes I feel like I need to take a shower every hour. And the beaches are not really light and breezy, but white-hot sand and warm, warm water. To really cool off, you have to go to a pool or sit in an air-conditioned restaurant. It’s not unlivable, but it takes some getting used to.
There’s a lot of Bangkok that we didn’t see (the famous floating markets, the Arts and Culture Center, the night markets). I’m sure we’ll be back very soon.