My dad arrived in hot, sweaty Bangkok on Sunday, October 13 around 9AM. As Sean and I strolled to the grocery store and then leisurely sipped some coffee at Kuppa, Dad was sitting at the Phaya Thai BTS Skytrain station, talking to strangers and really wishing that the email he sent us from Taipei, explaining that he’d be arriving two hours early, would have had enough internet juice to actually send. Sean and I arrived at the station and found Dad smiling and waving at us, which we found surprising because we thought we were about 10 minutes early for our meet-up time. Turns out we were a couple hours late, but my dad assured us he had been just fine meeting and greeting fellow travelers, especially an Austrian guy with a Taylor guitar (the embodiment of two of my father’s favorite things: the German language and nice musical instruments).
After the 20-minute train ride back to our apartment, Dad settled in to his living room bedroom a bit and then packed his backpack for an afternoon and evening in Bangkok. Jet-lag had nothing on him! Leaving Sean in the air-conditioning of the nearby Emporium mall, Dad and I set out for Chatuchak Market, which is the largest market in Thailand and the largest weekend market in the whole world! Covering 27 acres, it’s a lot to take in. To get there from my neighborhood, we take the BTS to Mo Chit station and then walk a few meters alongside Chatuchak Park. JJ, as the locals call it, is a bit of a madhouse, but it’s definitely the best place in town to find anything from cute souvenirs to plants to clothes to pottery to handmade soap to stationery to kitchen tools to pocket knives to jewelry…and even pets (though the animal rights activist in me really can’t stand that part). It’s very crowded, and while technically outdoors, the stalls of JJ are covered and connected to one another via millions of tiny passageways. He bought my nieces — his granddaughters — cute little elephant purses, and we watched as a rather large European guy in a chef’s coat served up paella while dancing to techno music. JJ seriously has it all!
Walking back to the BTS is always tricky because vendors spill very far out from the market itself. The sidewalks are completely packed with street food, trinkets, and throngs of people. Upon escaping to a pedestrian bridge, Dad took some photos of the chaos, and then we made our way to the Chatuchak MRT station. (The MRT is the subway system). We told Sean we’d meet him at the Hua Lamphong station at 6, so we got on the train and rode tranquilly in the chilly AC for about 30 minutes. We arrived, got some cold beverages, and then met up with Sean. Our evening adventure for Sunday was Chinatown!
This was just my second trip to Chinatown, and we were there for the same reason as the first time — the Vegetarian Festival. Every year during the first nine days of the ninth lunar year, Thais of Chinese descent cleanse themselves by eating all vegan food and abstaining from vices. They also wear all white and participate in some very interesting activities. Last year while in Phuket, where the biggest celebration in Thailand takes place, Sean, Tori, Kitty, and I witnessed bladed ladder climbing and saw people with large bandages on their faces. The large bandages were covering equally large self-inflicted wounds, meant to drive away evil spirits from one’s body. You can see my post about last year’s trip here. Oh! And I need to make a correction: I learned from the Wikipedia article about the festival that it is not Buddhist, but rather Taoist.
Chinatown during the Veg Festival is the only time I’ll eat street food, so I was really excited to eat some street noodles and some street spring rolls, and Sean and Dad shared some street moon cakes (filled with mung bean, red bean, and taro). After battling the crowds in the hot, sticky streets, Dad was losing energy, and Sean and I were ready to be back in our sanctuary (A.K.A. our apartment)!
The next morning, Sean left for work, Dad and I had a fun Skype-chat with Mom, and then we headed out for the Grand Palace and Wat Pho. I was worried about getting to that part of town, which is not on the BTS or the MRT lines, at 8AM on a Monday morning. Thanks to the glorious power of the internet and the kindness of strangers who have written in forums about their experiences, I learned how to avoid roads altogether. (By the way, traffic was a main concern, but so were crooked taxi-drivers; they rip off tourists and take them to gem shops to get commission from their owners. Avoid them in Old Bangkok as much as possible!) This is what we did. I’ll write them as instructions for future travelers!
1. Take the BTS to Saphan Taksin (on the Silom line).
2. Walk to the Central Pier (called Sathorn Pier) on the Chao Phraya River, and “just say no” to all people selling tickets. They’re trying to sell tourist tickets at 10 times the price of the Chao Phraya Express Boat system.
3. Get on a boat that has arrived from your left with no flag, an orange flag, or a green flag. To make sure you’re on the right one, you can ask to make sure it’s going to “Tha Chang”. Once on the boat, a lady will come by to collect the 15 baht (about 50 cents).
4. Get off at Tha Chang (N9). Walk a couple hundred meters, and voila! You’ll arrive at the Grand Palace!
This was much simpler than taking a taxi, and it was really fun to show Dad the Chao Phraya River. As we went up river toward the palace, Dad was struck by the contrasts that one observes while walking around in Bangkok. He calls Thailand the “Land of Contrasts”, which is very insightful and very fitting for a city where the Shangri-La Hotel’s next-door neighbors are poor slum-dwellers who live their whole lives on the banks of the river — fishing, washing, bathing, cooking, etc. Even just looking out our apartment window one can see that the neighborhood goes from fancy high-rises to run-down shacks and back to fancy high-rises a hundred times over. These contrasts are a constant reminder that Thailand is still a developing country.
Speaking of contrasts, we went straight from seeing where many poor people live along the river to visiting the grounds of the magnificent Grand Palace where Siam’s nine kings have resided. The current king, King Rama IX, does not live there now, but special events still take place there. One of the main attractions inside the palace is the shrine of the Emerald Buddha. The Emerald Buddha is Thailand’s pride and joy, and while it’s actually made of jade, it’s a sight to see. I particularly enjoy the fact that this particular Buddha gets an outfit for each season. We saw him in his airy summer ensemble.
After a break for some cold drinks, Dad and I pressed on to Wat Pho, which is a temple (“wat” = temple) famous for housing the really humongous Reclining Buddha. It also has very pretty grounds and is less hectic than the Grand Palace.
From our riverboat on the way back to Saphan Taksin, we could see Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn. We decided that seeing it from the river was good enough because we had Indian Food on our minds!
Though hot and sticky, we ventured our way back to the BTS and got off at Nana station. One of my favorite restaurants, Dosa King, is just a quick hop from the station, on Soi 11. Dad had read my post about my favorite Bangkok restaurants, and this was one he knew he’d have to try! We stuffed ourselves with dosas, veggie pakora, dal, and other Indian goodies, and then made it back home in time to rest up before the next meal!
Resting up in Thailand is simply lovely when one partakes in an inexpensive foot massage, which is exactly what we did that afternoon. I took Dad to the little place across the street that Sean and I frequent. The ladies were excited to see me with my kuhn pa (dad), and Dad loved every second of his foot massage…except the sticks that they use to press on pressure points. Sean hates the stick too. Dad’s masseuse just laughed at his ticklishness and kept the stick far from his feet!
Before dinner at Cabbages & Condoms, Dad and I checked out Terminal 21 shopping mall. Even if you’ve seen a million malls, you probably haven’t seen one like this! Each floor is meant to be a different world city. There’s Paris, Istanbul, Tokyo, San Francisco, London, and the bottom floor is the Caribbean (unknown exact location). Dad came all this way to stand beneath the Golden Gate Bridge!
Sean met us at Cabbages & Condoms, a safe-sex-themed restaurant with some outstanding Thai food. This was where we learned that Dad REALLY likes Thai food, something he thought he’d never say. He’s not a fan of coconut milk or copious amounts of basil, so many California Thai dishes he found to be unappetizing. But real Thai food is different! His favorite dishes are bung fai dang (stir-fried morning glory vegetable with garlic and hot peppers) and som tam (spicy, sour green papaya salad). It was so much fun watching him try the food. He sincerely liked all of it (except for my tom kha, coconut-based mushroom soup!). Dad is stoked to go into a Thai restaurant in California and hunt for what he knows he likes, even if it means begging a Thai employee to make something not on the menu or to make it truly Thai style!
For more images of the Grand Palace, Wat Pho, and Wat Arun, please see my post about going to these great locations on a field trip a couple months ago!