Monday, November 17, 2014

Bangkok: Temples, Traffic, and a Trip to “Myanmar”

After 20+ hours of travel, we arrived in Bangkok Tuesday evening.  Eager to explore the metropolis (and avoid jet lag), we immediately set off from our hotel for our first taste of Thai food.  At the aptly-named Cabbages and Condoms, run by an NGO advocating family planning, we enjoyed the authentic version of some of our favorite Thai dishes and got used to being in the midst of a chaotic city again.  The effects of the long flight and jet lag quickly kicked in, though, so we didn’t manage to explore further before turning in early and setting an alarm to make sure we didn’t sleep through our first full day in Asia.

What did we do on our first full day in Bangkok?  We (technically) went to Myanmar, the only country on our itinerary requiring a visa in advance of arrival.  These visas were too complicated to obtain in the US, so we opted to queue for an express visa at the Burmese embassy in Bangkok.  Although Stephanie had conducted extensive research regarding this process, we still weren’t quite sure what to expect and were a bit concerned that the embassy’s website only mentioned three-day visas, rather than express one-day processing described in multiple blog posts.  We set off for the embassy later than expected, cutting it dangerously close to the 12 pm deadline for submitting visa applications, at least in Steph’s opinion.  Unsure of our taxi-negotiating skills and Bangkok’s notorious traffic, we opted to take the skytrain, conveniently located near our hotel.  New York has trained us well and it turns out that Bangkok’s public transportation is incredibly easy to negotiate (as well as quite clean) and we arrived at our stop a few blocks from the embassy less than 30 minutes later.

Turning onto the street, we immediately saw a small queue outside the embassy entrance.  Steph quickly staked out a spot in line while Giorgio ran down the street to get the forms to fill out.  We rushed to fill out the forms before getting to the embassy entrance and what we presumed was the front of the line, wondering all the while why Myanmar wanted to know our work history – did they have concerns about illegal immigrants?  Once we were at the doorstep, though, we realized that the front of the line wasn’t coming anytime soon.  Multiple lines snaked through the hot and cramped room inside the embassy's visa section.  First we lined up to show our papers and passports to a woman who gave us a number.  Then we waited for our number to be called an hour later so that we could actually turn in the forms and pay.  Why are these two lines separate?  We have no idea.

Told to return in two hours to pick up our passports and visas, we headed out to enjoy lunch in the air conditioning and recover from the chaotic experience.  Returning to the embassy, however, we realized the chaos was not yet over.  Various lines had formed on the street outside the embassy as everyone waited for the doors to open.  Once the doors did open, behind schedule, it was a mad rush to the door.  Giorgio lead the way and found us a spot in a new line, where, thankfully, we didn’t have to wait long to have our passports returned, complete with valid visas to visit the Republic of the Union of Myanmar.

Visas for Myanmar in hand (or in our passports inside the hotel safe), we dedicated Thursday to exploring some of Bangkok’s key tourist sites – the Grand Palace, Wat Po, and Wat Arun.  Getting to these sites was an adventure in and of itself, as we had misjudged the scale of the map and ended up arriving at the palace via a combination of taking the subway, walking through a busy part of Bangkok in the heat, and hopping on a standing-room only boat.

The palace and temples themselves were awe-inspiring, covered in ornate and colorful sculptures as well as innumerable decorations.  There were Fu dogs everywhere, many of which certainly rivaled those found at Cedarhurst.

We explored the palace complex, replete with its own temples, and then marveled at the giant reclining Buddha in Wat Po.  Finally, we hopped on a quick ferry across the river to climb the steep steps of Wat Arun and take in the view of the vast city surrounding us.

In between stops, we also made some time to try a variety of Thai street food, as we had been eager to learn what pad thai is actually supposed to taste like.  The authentic version is almost as good as Sushi Thai Garden!

Bangkok isn’t the ideal temperature for a native of Minnesota and Giorgio isn’t a fan of the heat and humidity either.  Regardless, the sacred sites that we visited enforce a strict dress code, which prohibits clothing that reveals knees or shoulders.  Not wanting to be disrespectful, we both donned pants and Steph made sure not to wear a tank top.  Of course, not everyone got the memo and we saw various tourists that needed to rent shirts to wear into the temples.  We even spotted one group of Spanish tourists hastily stripping down to switch clothes in the back of one of the temples – would they have done that in a cathedral in Spain?

After tramping through the midday and afternoon heat, it was time for some rest and relaxation.  First on the agenda was a long tail boat trip along the river and surrounding canals.  On the main river, our driver cruised through the waves and dodged larger boats – it felt like we were out on open water.  Once we turned into the canals, lined with houses and shops precariously perched on stilts, it felt like we were in a Thai version of Venice.  The water was even just as dirty.  It was a perfect way to see a new part of the sprawling city.  Next time, we’ll bring a Singha along for the ride though. 

Second on the agenda was seeing a movie in an air-conditioned movie theater.  We haven’t been to the movies in months, plus we’d been told that Thai movie theaters have pretty cool VIP seats (thanks Dan!).  We weren’t disappointed – at least not once we’d figured out how to actually purchase our tickets from the crazy high tech self-service kiosk (not as easy as it sounds). We were then rewarded with a couch all to ourselves for the entirety of the film.  Note for anyone else visiting a Thai movie theater:  Don’t forget to stand up for the Thai national anthem, which is of course accompanied by a moving montage of paintings and photographs of the king performing all sorts of noble deeds.

Our adventure did not conclude with the movie.  Should anyone happen to be at the Paragon Cineplex after the mall is closed, you need to take the elevators all the way down to the parking garage and then wander out with the cars – you don’t need to try all sorts of possible floors and almost get stuck in the mall overnight like we did.  To cap off the night, we discovered that our taxi driver may or may not have been blind – at any rate, he couldn’t read the card we gave him with the name and address of our hotel without a magnifying glass.  Adventures driving through Bangkok!

On our last day in the city, we signed up for a Thai cooking class – after trying so much Thai food, we wanted to learn to cook it ourselves!  Prior to setting foot in the kitchen, we spent time in a nearby market, familiarizing ourselves with (and tasting) various Thai herbs, spices, fruits, and vegetables.  The range of chilis and curry pastes on offer was particularly intriguing.  The class itself was set up like a fancy cooking show – think Top Chef with an outdoor kitchen in an Asian-style garden.  To continue with the competition theme, Giorgio was clearly the winner, for those of you wondering.  Despite following the same set of instructions, his dishes were much prettier and somewhat tastier than Stephanie’s versions.  So if we make pad thai at home, Giorgio will be the one in front of the wok.

To cap off our whirlwind tour of Bangkok, we splurged on drinks at the 61st story Moon Bar.  The views across the city were breathtaking, even more so because the Plexiglas barriers between the cocktail tables and the vertiginous drop to the street appeared somewhat flimsy.  We are pretty sure they wouldn’t stand up to the NYC building code.  Plus we had the opportunity to savor a good mai tai for the first time since our Hawaii trip.

We could have spent a few more days exploring the busy city of Bangkok, but on Saturday it was time to head to Siem Reap, Cambodia, to explore the ancient Khmer city and temples, including Angkor Wat.


PS: No trip to Bangkok would be complete without a glimpse of the ever-present sex tourists.  Here is an example encountered in the subway for your viewing pleasure.

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