We landed in Bangkok at 7:30am, just in time to see, seemingly, every resident rush off to work. If you think traffic where you live is bad, you have to see traffic in Bangkok! We took the Sky Train from the airport into the city. The train was clean, blasting AC (thank goodness), and only a little full at our first stop. Then, as we got closer and closer to the city, more and more people crammed into any space they could find. It was so unlike my experiences with SF Muni - no one ever had to ask someone to move down, no one ever had to say "sorry" or "excuse me" for bumping into another person, no one got grumpy because they train was so stuffed full that you couldn't help but breath on the person next to you. Instead, everyone just moved in, as close to each other as possible, and remained perfectly silent. Jake and I stood in the back of the train, trying to keep our backpacks out of the way, as we watched everyone. When we reached our stop, a big transfer point to another tram line, we followed the hordes of people walking briskly down the ramp to the MRT station. One business man caught our attention and said, "First time in Bangkok?". "Yes!" we replied. "It is rush hour. Follow me!" So we followed our new friend down to the next station, listening to his instructions about security in the station needing to check our bags, and where to go when we get on the platform. He disappeared down the escalator as we showed our luggage to security. We got down to the platform just as our train was approaching. Taking note of how passengers queued and boarded the train, we waited patiently and then filed on with another large crowd. (Another difference from SF - on BART, everyone just stands in front of the doors, not really letting anyone out of the train, and they usually board before people are done getting out - so rude. In Bangkok, everyone waits patiently on the sides, leaving a clear path for people getting off the train. So simple. So brilliant.) We looked around on the crowded train and found our friend standing right next to us, holding a hand rail. "You are brave to arrive at rush hour! It is not always this busy. How long will you be in Thailand?" "Between three weeks and a month," we replied. "Where are you going to go? Not Phuket, I hope." "No, not Phuket. Koh Phi Phi, maybe Koh Tao, and Chiang Mai." "Ah yes, Chiang Mai is beautiful. You will like it." He left us at the next stop, wishing us good luck on our Thailand adventure. First impression of Bangkok - people are so friendly here!
When we got off the train in our neighborhood, near Lumphini Park, we experienced just how HOT it really was outside.(Second impression: OMG IT'S HOT.) And how busy it was. And how crowded it was. This place is like an assault on every sense - the sights, smells, feel of everything hits you right in the face. And it's all so interesting! Motorbikes, sometimes packed three people deep, scooted in and out of traffic. Street food carts filled the sidewalks, selling all kinds of noodle things and fried things. People stood outside massage parlors try to get our attention as we walk by, "Massaaaaaaaaaage?", I would hear, and then think to myself, "Was that a guy? With boobs? It most certainly was a guy with boobs." Not something we see every day in the States. We wandered down a few busy streets that were devoid of sidewalks, being sure not to step out too far into traffic or risk being taken down by a motorbike, until we arrived at our next home - an Airbnb listing managed by a Russian guy with three gorgeous huskies who lounged on the floor, panting, their faces right next to the fan.
Our room was nothing special - a clean, simple bedroom with no windows, a private bathroom, and a powerful AC. The only thing that was surprising was the bathroom - the shower and the toilet share the same space, so when you take a shower, you do so standing right next to the toilet and get it all wet. Very few bathrooms over here, I'm learning, have shower curtains to separate the shower, so the whole bathroom gets wet - a good reason to not wear shoes in the bathroom or risk tracking muddy water all over the place. Also, we can't put toilet paper down any of the toilets as the pipes are too old and fragile, and the sewer isn't made to handle paper waste. So, instead of filling a trash can with yucky paper, you're supposed to spray yourself off with the spray hose (like the ones attached to kitchen sinks)next to the toilet and then wipe yourself dry. It takes a bit to get used to a general feeling of not really being clean, or at least, clean by my standards, but we did adjust! We spent a of time in our room as we acclimated to the 5 hour time change (which really knocked me out) and planned our next move. We weren't really planning on exploring much of Bangkok since we were only going to be there for two nights, and most people we spoke to said "Get out of Bangkok as quickly as possible." Something I didn't realize when I chose our Airbnb spot was just how big Bangkok really is, and how difficult it is to get around - we were much farther outside the Old Town than I originally thought. The Grand Palace and many of the famous temples were an hour walk or more, and public transportation would take just as long. We could have hopped on the motorbike taxis and gotten there in about 15 minutes, but we were not interested in the seemingly incredibly dangerous mode of transportation just to wander around the outside of a palace. So, if we ever do go through Bangkok again, we'll make a point to stay close to the Old Town so we can see the sights.
Most of our exploring, then, was close to home, and consisted of diving into the food scene. We did take a couple hours to stroll around the large Lumphini Park and watch people of all ages run, bike, and work out in the outdoor gym. After wandering the park we were dying of thirst and popped into a 7-11 (which are just about on every corner) to buy water. While we were there, we tried to ask the employee where we can get good food. Unfortunately she had absolutely no idea what we were saying, our first instance of not being able to communicate. We were quickly reminded that not everyone speaks English! She asked for a certain amount of baht to pay for the water, and I held out my hand full of coins, unsure of what she needed. She plucked out a few coins, smiled that famous Thai smile, and we turned to head out the door when we heard, "Are you looking for local food?" We spun around to see another girl in line, eager to help us find something to eat. In broken English that is way better than my Thai will ever be, she directed us down the street to a food court. We thanked her profusely and took off to find this place. When we arrived, we realized it was still early (about 10:30am), and most of the vendors hadn't arrived to set up their stalls yet. Thankfully, one stall was already cooking up a storm - cutting vegetables, frying eggs, mashing up spices and chilies.
We approached the stall, timid, not knowing how to order or even WHAT to order, unsure of exactly what they were cooking, when Jake noticed an older man chowing down on a delicious looking plate of food. We walked up to the stall, said hello and smiled, pointed to the older man's plate, and asked for two in the most polite way we could. They all smiled and bowed and giggled at us. Minutes later, we were presented with small bowls of soup, and plates of rice, perfectly fried eggs, and fried skin of some animal (I think it was pork) with green beans and chilies, all piled together. IT WAS DELICIOUS. We devoured every bite!
Since our first experience with non-restaurant style food prepared in a kitchen of questionable health standards was so successful, we were eager to hit the street food stalls near our apartment. Before heading out to the stalls, though, we saved a few key phrases in Google Translate to help us communicate (things like, "Two please", "What do you recommend?", and "How much does it cost?"). We tried all kinds of delicious things:
- Banana pancake. Thai style - probably our favorite thing that we've had, it's just SO GOOD. The cook grabbed a small, golf ball sized piece of dough out of an ice chest and stretched it and rolled it and flung it around like an Italian making pizza. He had a rhythmic motion of picking up a side of the dough, stretching it, and slapping it back on the surface that was so methodical and practiced, it was fascinating to watch. He carefully placed the thin dough in the hot oil to fry it. Then he poured a mixture of beaten eggs and banana on top and folded the edges up, making it look like a little tart, or even a hot pocket. Gently, he flipped it over to fry the other side. Soon he handed us the finished product - a delicious creation topped with sweetened condensed milk. My mouth is watering just thinking about it now.
- Thai crepes - We kept seeing people walking around with cone shaped things that looked like crepes and had to find them for ourselves. We approached the crepe stand and, using Google Translate, asked what the owner recommended. He pointed to two ingredients written in English on the sign, dried shredded pork with chili sauce. "Great! We'll have one of those." And then I picked one: "golden egg strips" with dried shredded pork. He looked at me funny and said ok. As the lady who was cooking them was preparing my selection, she asked if I wanted chocolate sauce on it…hmmm, chocolate sauce on pork? If you think so, lady! And then we realized - the egg things must be sweet, not savory! Ding ding ding! The owner handed us our snacks - crunchy, crepe-looking like things in paper cones, and we dug in. Sure enough, my sweet crepe had some dried pork in it, but it was all masked by the chocolate sauce so I couldn’t tell anyway. Both of them were fantastic.
- Bowls of noodle soup, everywhere! All with interesting looking pork meatballs and loads of noodles. Yum.
- BBQ chicken skewers - We tried two kinds - breast and butt. The chicken butt was tasty, but fatty and full of bones. The breast was really good. Also available at the cart were skewers of liver, what looked like tiny intestines, and little black balls…not sure what those were. I'll stick to the breast, thanks.
We also took a night to wander through the Silom Night Market, which was, in a word, overwhelming! Vendors lined the streets with all kinds of clothes, electronics, knickknacks, and food. Men approached us from every direction asking us to see their ping pong show (you know, where girls shoot ping pong balls and other things out their hooha). Strip clubs lined the ally where most of the market was, their doors open so we could see the girls dancing on the stage, trying to entice people to go inside. It was about 100 degrees outside, and sticky. We took a break from the madness to get some noodle soup across the street, at a popular street cart away from the madness and talked about everything we had seen. Jake and I agree - the market was fascinating, but the sex shows being sold were all kind of sad, and dirty, and gross; kind of like a creepy underbelly of Las Vegas that you never wanted to see. We're glad to have seen it since it's just SUCH a different way of life, but I'm glad it's not what we live every day.
When we weren't eating, we were planning our next step. I was growing more and more anxious about picking the perfect place to stay, in the perfect neighborhood, in the perfect order. We knew we were heading to the beach, but which beach, which island should we see first? I had made plans for us to head to Ao Nang in Krabi, and then read in Lonely Planet that Ao Nang is supposedly terrible. Did I pick the wrong jumping off point for our tropical adventure? Should we have come to SE Asia at a different time of year? Should we be more planned out like we were in Europe rather than playing everything by ear? This spontaneity thing has me stressed out, and we've only been doing it for two days! Then Jake, my voice of reason, reminded me - it doesn't matter where we go, or when we go, or where we stay, or for how long we stay there. If we don't like something, we'll leave. If we love it, we'll stay longer. There is no right way to see this place. There is no wrong way to see this place. We're not going to see it all and everyone will always be telling us that we should have gone here, there, or somewhere else. We'll go at our own pace, and see things that are important to us and take time off to do absolutely nothing when we want to. Spontaneity is freedom to move as fast or slow as we want. Let's take advantage of it.
With that in mind, we headed to Don Mueang Airport to catch our cheap flight with Nok Air to Krabi. We took the metro to the train station, where big white vans that act like taxis for passengers on the curb We loaded into a van with eight other people, all locals looking like they were heading to work, and drove an hour to the airport. Good thing we arrived two hours before our flight left, because the place was a madhouse! People were rushing around everywhere, dragging gigantic bags behind them. We found our line for southbound flight check in and jumped in. Surprisingly enough, the extremely long line moved incredibly fast, even though they were scanning every single bag. Before we knew it we were through security and on our airplane heading for the beach!
To us, Bangkok was a place to adjust, to familiarize ourselves with a new culture, and to prepare ourselves for our South East Asian journey that lie ahead. We said goodbye to the Western World, goodbye to the cultures, customs, and food that are comfortable and known, and hello to something completely different. Instead of hanging on the sidelines and watching how other westerners made their way around, we decided to jump right in with food at the food court, the night market on Silom, and street food. We're excited about this next chapter of the adventure, and I think, appropriately nervous for all of the unfamiliar things we will encounter. We didn't just get our feet wet, we dove in head first, as one is only able to do in Bangkok. And now we're ready to explore this interesting land and get outside of our comfort zone!