Sunday, January 20, 2008

Take 1: Thailand, Baby! We're going to Bangkok!

For a lonnnnnnnnnnnngggg time now (relatively speaking, since I've only been living a mere 24 years and travel dreaming for maybe 6 of those years) I've been dreaming of going to a little country in southeast Asia known as Thailand. My old roomies in Australia had been there and loved it, other travelers I'd met in New Zealand raved about it, and most recently my sister's boyfriend went and had a great time. Actually, the original intent, or desire rather, after college was to teach English abroad in Thailand, but I found very few reputable programs there and pay would allow me to do little other than live and eat in Thailand (which might not be so bad, but I wouldn't be traveling elsewhere).
Anyway, I was basically planning my winter trip to Thailand before I even came to Japan. I talked to other JETs about their trips and the "Thailand Lonely Planet" became my new bible. I did tons of Internet research and even made a rough outline of the trip for a friend (Ms. Katie Frank) that was meeting me there and others coming along. I had my ducks all in a row... or so I thought. I had visions of grandeur and this land seemed to offer everything I could possibly dream of - and more!!! Rockclimbing, hiking, beaching, bathing, food, history, snorkeling, scuba, oh my! My eyes were a glazin'and my heart was content knowing the only place I'd rather than with my family over the holidays was in this fantasy land.
Read on my friends, to see if all my hopes and dreams (for this trip at least) were fulfilled.

The trip began from the minute I left my house. I was headed for the train station, which is a 45 minute walk, with an overstuffed backpack strapped to me , a big duffel bag hanging around my neck/shoulder, and purse rotating from any appendage it would hang from. It was about 45 degrees out, so I also had several layers of clothing, hats and mittens on - which was great while I was standing at the train stations, horrible for the sprints to and from each.
I met my friends Gopika and Carol in Tokyo, after all of the trains had been delayed for a reason we can't explain because none of us speak Japanese. Announcements were made, people got on and off trains, and I sat nervously in an unmoving train in Ueno, Tokyo for 40 minutes wondering if I was gonna make it to the airport or not.
We met in Tokyo, and had just enough time to buy yet another ticket for the last train to the airport (9pm-ish). Unfortunately this last train didn't go ALL the way to the terminal, so we had to get a cab there from the train's last stop. Before the cab could get to actual terminal, we had to pass through what looked like a huge tollway. This is where we got interrogated about where we were going and had to give our Passports and information to the guards. We all had early flights, so we were planning on just crashing at the airport (common practice in the States). Apparently, one of the world's most populated cities' airports closes at night! I still have no idea why or how this is possible, but I do know that we were allowed 'special entrance' and met by a guard upon our arrival at the doors to the terminals. There was lots of Japanese walkie-talkie chatter before we could enter. We were then escorted to the seats you see below, not long after which the lights in the place all turned off, and another guard literally set up a folding chair not more than 10 meters from us and sat there all night. Totally awkward, but at least I didn't have to worry about anyone stealing anything whilst I was sleeping. Not that I got much sleep, the space in between the pleather chairs and curve on the sides makes it pretty inconvenient for catching zzz's... not surprising, since apparently NOBODY does this is Japan.
Gopika came equipped with a full bed sheet because she's weirded out by hostel sheets, or apparently airport chairs. I had enough layers on that I felt alright with it.
Our flights were relatively painless. Check in was easy, food was great, and they even had Christmas decs up everywhere and music playing. We flew China Airlines, and we had a layover, so I kind of just assumed we had a layover in China. Gopika and I were talking about it the whole flight, and as we flew in and all shouting "China, baby!" obnoxiously on the flight. Then, we got into the terminal to make the transfer, we saw a sign that said "Welcome to Taiwan!" We were very confused. "What are we doing in Taiwan? I thought we were going to China? Taipei's not in China?", we proclaimed. This made me study my geography a bit more on the next flight.

This is a map of Thailand in relation to its surrounding countries and the world.

So after a 4ish hour flight from Tokyo to Taipei, Taiwan and a 3ish hour flight from Taipei to Bangkok, we were finally there! This is the Bangkok airport. We got there in late afternoon and then had to wait for two more of the crew to arrive a few hours after we did.

After a wait in the airport, some meet and greets, and some logistics figuring, we got a cab ride into Bangkok (about an hour from the airport). We had no reservations or anything, so we just told the cabby to go to a road I had read about in Lonely Planet that's claim was to "always have a place to lay your head - at all hours". This was us at Kho San Rd.

We had a couple hostels in mind based on the references in the Lonely Planet (LP), but after 3 hit and misses, all the while carrying all our luggage around, we settled on "the next available rooms". We found a place with $6 rooms: they had 2 beds, a "shower"/bathroom (no cold water, no flushing toilet), a sink, and a fan. This was just my kind of place! The most bang for your buck.

We threw down our junk and immediately went back out to the strip. They had tons of shopping stalls (everything from t-shirts to speakers to DVD's to fisherman pants), restaurants/bars, convenience stores, and my personal favorite - street vendors!

My first puchase of the night came from this here pineapple lady. Half a pineapple is stuffed in a bag, smacked with a mini-machete, and then cut into pieces (seemingly magically as it's done all while in the bag, but the bag doesn't break) and served with a long wooden skewer. It was about 70 cents, and delicious!

I vowed to try any and every type of fruit that existed in Thailand. Pretty sure I did. These are the inside of jack fruits (the shell is seen immediately behind it) and a fruit similar to grapefruit, but not nearly as bitter or tainting and thus far superior!
Corn on the cob and seasoned and cooked meat and veggies on a stick.

Soups and noodles galore!

And looky here, we even managed to find some gelatto:)

So, the Khao San area of Bangkok at night was pretty cool so far. Excellent food and drinks, good prices. I approve. The next morning we got up early to find a new hostel (the others weren't diggin' the dirt and it was a good change of pace) and go talk to a travel agent and just finalize our travel details and book some stuff. Like a good girl, I did my research and knew exactly what I wanted to do. Unfortunately, the others weren't quite as sure, and two of our friends had yet to come. SO, we spent the first half of the day in the travel office and ended up with more questions than answers. By afternoon we needed out.

Bangkok was HOT! Probably in the 90's during the day, with the thick smog and crowds intensifying the heat. In comparison to the bitter cold of Japan, I was in heaven. I was just in a very sweaty, polluted, congested heaven. The Grand Palace is a "must-see" in Bangkok and wasn't too far away from our hostel, so we decided to walk it. Maps in hand, we were off.

Unsurprisingly, we took a turn one street too early and found all these people selling... things. It was so random, and I have no idea how any of them make any money, because to me they appeared to be nothing more than trinkets and frankly, crap. But, it was fun to look at none-the-less.
This dude had literally 5 things on his little palate. Just chillin' there, all day, waiting for someone to buy one of his 5 things. Maybe his things really rocked the house and he would bring home the bacon with one mere purchase... my eye's not too keen on the "random things" front.
Okay, back on track and the Grand Palace is finally in view, as well as this massive statue of three elephants in the middle of an intersection. The elephant is Thailand's national animal and has been valued throughout it's history for multiple reasons. Today, the white elephant symbolizes patience and wisdom and is also said to bring good luck.

After going to the wrong entrance first, we made it to what we thought was the front. A guy in a uniform pointed out that neither Gopika or Deanna had pants on, and told us we would have to wait until after 2:30pm to be able to rent them. He conveniently directed us to the two tuk-tuks that were stationed in front of us, grabbed my map and circled some points of interest we could go to for the next couple hours before coming back. We talked the tuk-tuk drivers down to a mere 10 baht (30 cents) for the full 2 hours of transport and went on our merry way.
Tuk-tuks are insane! They're cheap and relatively quick, but the drivers are carazy! We were weaving in and out of traffic like whoa, buses and cars in every which direction and a few motorcycles and mopeds in between, just for fun. I was glad I wasn't driving, but a little scared for my life. It was an adrenaline rush, for sure.
So, first the drivers took us to this beautiful "wat" (temple). It was the first of many I'd see, but it was beautiful and so interesting to just walk around the complex it was on and observe people worshipping.

I learned the 'routine' for worship, which was somewhat similar to visiting a Japanese shrine:
1) Kneel immediately so that you are lower than the Buddha figure and so that your feet are not facing it. Feet are considered unclean and therefore should never be pointed at authority figures or used to open or touch things.
2) Place your hands in a "wai" position (like praying), and bow as low as you can twice
3) Pray and reflect
4) You may offer some money if you choose

I started to see just how common and central gold was to the architecture and design of Thailand. Some was painted on, but many of the Buddha statues had very thinly pounded sheets of gold molded and placed on the statues that was visibly flaking off. I know it was real gold, but no idea what karat or anything.
We walked into those gorgeous doors to find these monks in training, and another (perhaps enlightened?) monk giving advice to people in what looked like an open discussion.
Check out this video from the inside.

The World's Largest Standing Buddha.
We putzed around here for quite awhile before going back to the tuk-tuks, praying they'd still be there. Since there are food and drinks every 2 feet in Thailand, we grabbed what turned out to be delicious flavored ice drinks with tapioca balls on the bottom and got some for our drivers.
We ended up chatting with an older guy that was sitting behind our tuk-tuks as we all enjoyed our chunky drinks. He answered a ton of our questions about the Buddhas and as much as he could about our travels ahead of us. He also requested we help out our drivers by making a few stops so they could qualify for a special gas deal the government was providing for the day.
Well, shoot... they were good dudes, waiting hours for us and all as we perused a wat, only charging us 30 cents for a thrill ride of lives the least we could do was a make a stop with them to get their special ticket, right?
WE GOT PLAYED... after the wat, we got taken to three jewelry stores and the Thailand Tourism Office. I'd read all about this (fairly common "scam" - although I still don't understand how the drivers benefit - we didn't buy anything and paid them next to nothing for the ride), so I knew what was up, and our guys were just smiling the whole time, so we decided to play along. Had some killer rings on my fingers throughout the day, and one lady was trying to bank a sale on the premise that "if you REALLY love your mother, you'll buy her this necklace!". NOTE: I do love you Mom, but I don't think a fake gold pendant will prove it. We then spent another few hours the Tourism place because one of the girls decided to book a trip up north (I didn't get much further north than Bangkok). Needless to say, we did not make it to the Grand Palace this day, but we did have a hilarious experience getting conned by a guy in uniform, two tuk-tuk drivers, and one sly old Thai guy. Nice one, guys, nice one.

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