International Travel: Thailand Day 1, Bangkok
For those of you considering traveling to Thailand I have added some links throughout this post that may be helpful or, at least, informative!
I can barely contain my excitement! Another destination, this time halfway across the world, is about to be crossed off the bucket list as I board the airplane at Denver International Airport. All I need to do is get through the next 24 hour travel day and I will be in Thailand.
Southeast Asia has always had a draw on me and I contemplate why that is as the doors close and my adventure begins. Eight months of waiting and the day is finally here. My stomach drops as the plane lifts off into the sky. I can’t sleep so I turn the pages of my Lonely Planet book looking for ideas of things to do, of places to see and adventures to have. The pages are well-worn at this point. It’s early Monday morning but by the time I arrive at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok it will be almost Wednesday at midnight. I feel like a modern-day time traveler.
The airport is quiet. A few flights are still coming in, but the hustle and bustle of a major international hub is all but non-existent. I collect my pack and hail a cab. The hour-long drive passes by in a flash and I arrive at my hotel in Chinatown in the middle of Bangkok. It’s 3 a.m. and I close my eyes.
It’s early. The sun has barely risen above the horizon and I am out the door. The quietness of the previous evening’s drive gives way to the early morning flow of pedestrians, motor bikes, tuk-tuks and cars. It is noisy and already warm. I walk along the crowded streets taking in the sights, sounds and smells of the city. This is where a last-minute gift from a friend comes in handy. A simple handkerchief and some essential oils are really helpful in the city where smells can jump out at you and hit you in the gut with the force of a Muay Thai boxer, more on that later. I weave my way through the busy streets and turn down alleyways that are lined on both sides by booths selling anything and everything. I cross canals and find my way through more alleys as I make my way towards Wat Pho.
Thailand is a predominantly Buddhist country and you cannot throw a stone seemingly without hitting a temple no matter which city you find yourself in. Bangkok, being the capitol, has some of the most elaborate wats in the entire country and Wat Pho is one of the biggest. Known for its 46 meter gold leaf Reclining Buddha statue, the temple complex spans city blocks, housing smaller statues and places of worship, waterfalls, gardens, pagodas and all sorts of other surprises. Monks dressed in bright oranges and deep reds intermingle with the throngs of visitors, including myself, exploring the vast complex.
I guess this as good a place as any to mention that the Thai people have some pretty strict rules when it comes to their monks and for etiquette in general. The monks themselves live by 227 distinct precepts ranging from not being able to touch money to not drinking to properly conducting themselves while outside of their temple. Monks aren’t supposed to be approached or touched by women (sorry ladies) and you are never supposed to stand higher than a monk. This is the same for any statue of Buddha. You’re also never supposed to touch someone’s head or feet. You shouldn’t point your feet, especially the bottoms, at anyone (especially a monk or a statue of Buddha). You should always use your right hand to make any kind of exchange with another person whether that is money, food or shopping purchases (sorry lefties). These are just some quick guidelines that I picked up during my time in country and there are plenty more so as not to look like a rude tourist. The more you know…
I spend hours at Wat Pho. There are countless smaller statues of Buddha within the complex and the Reclining Buddha is every bit as impressive as the photos I’ve seen before arriving. The attention to detail within all of the temples inside and out is remarkable. The stone and brickwork weave a tapestry of colors throughout the wat as couples, families, monks and groups of young students sight-see at their own leisure.
The afternoon is getting late and there seems to be a surge in people visiting Wat Pho so I decide to head out. Tuk-tuk drivers line the street all vying for fares. I politely decline over and over again as I make my way up the block to Saranrom Park. I walk the shady, tree-lined path around the small ponds filled with lily pads and wind up alone, except for a lone woman in prayer, in front of Chao Mae Takhian Thong Shrine.
I spend a few quiet minutes there, not wanting to interrupt the woman; I head back the way I came. I make my way out of the park and towards the Giant Swing a few blocks away. The streets are noisy and crowded a giant contrast to the serenity of the park. I follow the sidewalk past stores that are starting to close. Shop owners wind down their day as the smell of food starts to permeate the air. Many people in Thailand work and live in the same space, especially within the cities, so it is not uncommon to see families gathered around a large wok in the evenings surrounded by whatever the shop sells. The aforementioned sidewalk abruptly ends as I near the swing and I am forced to play a game of Frogger against traffic to reach my destination which is unfortunately undergoing restoration. My journey is not in vain however as Wat Suthat sits directly across the street.
The sun is starting to hang low as I explore another stunning temple complex. I make a few donations and am able to light a small candle and some incense in front of one of the again numerous statues of Buddha within the wat. Monks are starting to prepare for their evening meal as some oversee the moving of two statues depicting some of their founding monks into the main prayer chamber. It is getting late and I am one of the only tourists still in the complex. I spend a few more minutes in quiet wonder before finding a way back out onto the street and towards my hotel.
The sun fades as I make my way across the canals and to one of the many night markets that are set up with street food vendors. Street food in Thailand is some of the best I have ever tasted. Spicy and hot with all sorts of choices, I wait for a spot to open up at a table before ordering a plate of squid and basil. The chef stands at his row of large woks tending to other dishes as people sit, talk, eat and drink. I sip on my beer as I wait for my food, the perfect ending to a perfect day! ( A few food notes when it comes to street vendors. It is best to make sure you are not the only one eating from any one vendor. Also make sure that they are cooking your food fresh instead of it sitting there. You never know how long the food has been there. Common sense but consider it another “the more you know” moments.)