April 26 – 29, 2008
After about 12 hours on the road (from Siem Reap, Cambodia) and a serious case of backpacking burn-out, we finally arrived at our last stop, Bangkok. Sawasdee! Road-weary, sleep deprived, and with Cambodian dust press-powdered on our faces, we just hoped for some downtime from roughing it out for almost a week in two countries. Thailand did cut us some slack, but our short stay had its ups and downs.
Ginn, the Guru
First off, thanks to my Bangkok-based friend, Ginn Lietz, for setting us up to our digs. That was one of the “ups” of this leg. He took time in outlining our itinerary, considering our limited time in Bangkok and even more limited wherewithal. Oh, and Ginn, thanks for the breakfast and The Secret audiobooks.
Ginn booked us at My House Hotel, a guesthouse near his place, the Phaya Thai District, slightly off the beaten path but made accessible by nearby sky train’s Ari station. At 920 baht ($33) for a twin room, it was a good enough deal: queen-size bed, TV, mood lighting. Clean and roomy too, although there was a decidedly septic-tank stench emanating from the bathroom sink in my room.
My House Hotel, however, was less homey as its name would have us believe. We instantly suspected it to be a “love hotel” (a “motel” in Philippine English) because of the constant stream of local couples going in and out. That turned out to be the least of our concerns. Upon arrival, we were greeted, not by the typically Thai prayer-like gesture of hands pressed together while bowing, but by rudeness from a front-desk staff. She dismissively informed us there had been no booking made for us. Worse, she did not bother doing anything about it. We protested, but she just shrugged and went about her clerical business as if that would make us slink away into the darkness of night.
That was not the sort of treatment you accorded a guest, especially when they had just been through a hellish bus ride without air-conditioning for half a day. And especially if you called your hotel a “house”! Voice-raising and eyebrow-soaring ensued on both sides of the desk until the issue was resolved. It was almost nightfall and we were too pooped to find another hotel. We had to get our rooms, but not before being needlessly hassled. My Hell Hotel – that one cranky staff made it so. That was one of the “downs.” I never had a friendly conversation and cultural exchange with a local, as I had in Cambodia and Vietnam.
The Kingdom of the Elephants
During dinner in some hole-in-the-wall near our digs, we felt a rubbery nozzle slither down our backs. It turned out to be a baby elephant’s trunk, panhandling with its human companion. It was to be my only elephant sighting in my entire Indochina trip. I snapped a photo of the duo as they left; I didn’t try to while they were at it as I suspected the man would bug us if he discovered we were tourists.
The sight was also disconcerting to me, no matter how cute the baby elephant was. I caught its eye and it had that sad stare of a caged animal. My heart bled for this adorable Dumbo who should still be trailing its mother, not some human beggar. I had recently seen in Animal Planet the plight of these abused elephants used for begging in Bangkok streets. I thought the practice had been outlawed by the Bangkok government, but this experience proved that it was still happening. If only these elephants are celebrated as in the triple elephant monument, and not abused into forced labor.
Bangkok Public Transport: From Rarefied to Undignified
Avoiding the world-famous Bangkok traffic jams in the morning, we took the elevated train they call BTS Sky Train. I was impressed: modern, efficient, clean, and cheap. The stations were spacious and platforms allowed more room for passengers to form a line. There was none of the pushing and shoving I had experienced in Manila and Shanghai. Computerized ticket booths shortened lines considerably. A great view of Bangkok cityscape could also be had: huge malls and shopping centers mostly.
Under the elevated Sky Train, there was less dignity in public transportation on the streets. The cabbies behaved like their despicable counterparts in Manila. They would refuse you for whatever reason they saw fit. And if they did consider taking you in, they would negotiate an insanely overblown non-metered fare. So we decided to take the ubiquitous tuktuk (motorized rickshaw), which looked like a cross between the jeepney and the tricycle. A striking difference, though, was that they generally keep to their lane, unlike their careening cousins in Manila that weaved through traffic as if they owned the streets. But fare-wise, the tuktuk was no better than a cab. A short distance would cost as much. Highway robbery! We ended up swallowing our pride and riding out the ruse of a cabbie who was obviously taking us for a ride.
The King and Thai
A curious sight in the city was the numerous billboard-size photos of the royal couple, King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit. Reverence for the monarchy was apparent; the frames were neatly put up with an altar-like floral arrangement at the base (very much unlike the visual pollution of Filipino politicians’ pictures in billboards, tarpaulins, and banners cluttering Metro Manila streets). The photos depicted each one separately or together, one showing them as a young couple in sepia – my favorite.
Bangkok is a Big and Busy Bazaar!
And finally, shopping. I couldn’t decide if it was an “up” or a “down”. I was with three hot-blooded females whose DNAs were wired for commerce. Our first day in the city was devoted to doing just that. I had to concede. I needed to buy souvenirs too, but I could get it over and done in an hour. Theirs took the whole day in two huge markets till the unholy hours of night.
First stop: Jatujak (or as the locals would say, Chatuchak), touted as the world’s biggest weekend market. And boy, didn’t I agree – it was huge! And I thought traversing Angkor Wat was a killer to the quadriceps. My legs ached more here, crisscrossing its labyrinthine grids of stalls, and more stalls. Clothes, carvings, and Thai silk products were hawked by aggressive vendors who always mistook me for a moneyed Chinese (I got more “ni hao‘s” here than in China!). Bargaining was an adrenalin rush to my girlfriends; I just accepted it as a tediously necessary exercise to get what I wanted. I discovered that the Thais could be obstinate in negotiations and did not readily back down and give in to your price, unlike the Cambodians in Angkor or even the Chinese in Shanghai. Bargaining was really a battle of wills, one that required the art of war. In a word: stressful!
By nightfall, the girls hadn’t had enough. They headed to Suan Lum, the night bazaar. It was actually laid-out in a more orderly fashion than Jatujak. Its roofed blocks were also a relief from the downpour later that evening. I found this market more convenient and less of an assault to the senses for its wider corridors and less cramped merchandising layout. Unfortunately, this bazaar would be dismantled soon to give way to property development in the area. One of us skipped this flea market and went posh and original (as opposed to imitation) instead. She opted for the fancier, air-conditioned mall, Siam Paragon.
Birds in Bangkok
Hours before our flight out, a pint-size highlight came in the simplest form. Having run out of funds to get into the Grand Palace, we found ourselves walking aimlessly outside the palace walls and running into a flock of pigeons on the sidewalk. It was hot, but we lingered for a few moments with this pleasant consolation.
Bye Bye Bangkok!
I must have a walked a full year’s worth in just eight days in this trip. I was just about ready to collapse in my own bed. But before that, Bangkok sent us off with a bang – its shiny and new airport: Suvarnabhumi (pronounced in Thai as “suwanapoom”). An aside: Thai words had many silent vowels and plosives were interchanged in phonology and orthography. Pronunciation was far removed from spelling. We just kept in mind that Suvarnabhumi was about 45 minutes away from the city by taxi, and kept enough baht for highway toll (about 50 baht).
In all, Suvarnabhumi made a good first impression with its slick steel frames and blue lighting, both easy on the eyes. Despite the vastness and seemingly unending departure hallway, it had a relaxing effect on me. A fitting way to cap a hectic yet enriching backpack tour – a trip I may not do the same way again, but I would be forever glad I did.