Our arrival in the capital city of Thailand was around 4:30am, local time. For us, it felt like late afternoon, which meant that we were in for a long day.
The visa acquisition process was a piece of cake. Finding public transit in an airport that appears to be in a state of constant construction (with makeshift dorm rooms for the workers hidden not-so-subtly under the escalators) turned out to be more difficult. With some good American tenacity, though, we navigated bravely to the train to the city. With our newly exchanged Thai Baht resting plastically in our pockets, we rode into the humid and rainy Asian morning.
Immediately upon our off-loading into the already bustling city (it wasn't much past 6am), I hopped into the equivalent of a Portland food truck pod, but for street food, and had some squash curry for breakfast. It was cheap and it was delicious. For about $1, I was a happy man. Fun bonus: it didn't make me sick. Things were looking good.
And with lips tingling (I overestimated my capacity for capsaicin), we were off into the city. We had reserved a place for the night, but it was across town from where we were, so we wandered the streets. Several things were notable.
First, the number of motorbikes. It was astounding. Everyone seemed to be driving them. If they weren't on a motorbike, they were driving a taxi or minibus. And while traffic laws seemed to be moderately well-followed by the four-wheeled vehicles, there was no such compliance from the bikes.
Second, the city had smells. Lots and lots of smells. Some were amazing, emanating from the street food vendors that were piling up meats and vegetables as fast as they could cook them on their little charcoal grills. Some were less than amazing, as wafts of rotting protein seemed to billow from piles of garbage and alleyways. Add the exhaust fumes rocketing off of the street traffic and the perfumed flowers that seemed littered everywhere, and to call it a sensory overload is to do an injustice.
Third, the King of Thailand died in October of last year, starting a year long period of mourning. Evidence of this is everywhere. His image is plastered on buildings, street sides, shop windows, and sidewalk tributes, which range from postcards with incense to elaborate, city-block length flower arrangements.
Speaking of the flowers, I couldn't help but stop every couple of blocks and marvel at the beauty and abundance of orchids. In the US, orchids are common, but not abundant. They are mildly particular, and to grow them successfully (ie, not just buy them from the store and replace them after they die) is a nontrivial task. Here, they seemed to bloom from every shop window and street tree. Colors and varieties that I've seen only in greenhouses were thriving among the vines and shrubs. There's a saying in botany that every plant is a weed somewhere. I guess this is the land where orchids flourish.
We wandered the city for the day, finding the backpackers' street and getting introduced to Thai food and the Thai tourist industry. It certainly wasn't the case in certain areas of the city, but especially in the sightseeing spots and hostel streets, there were people that would walk right up to you, asking for your name, and if you'd like to buy something or go with them for a tour. Often it was just a yell and gesture to their wares. It got old pretty fast.
Once the rain threatened to come down in earnest, we found our way across the rover to our lodging to drop off our bags. There's a decent train system in the city, so we were able to head back into city soon thereafter, where we accidentally ate dinner at a fancy restaurant. The first of many tribulations that were to occur when we would start looking for a place to eat only after becoming irrationally hungry.
The next day, we spent much of the morning acquiring a SIM card for Jenn's phone. This was necessary for her to be able to use mobile data. Fortunately for me, my phone carrier provides international coverage (woo). So we walked up the corner 7-11, purchased a data plan, then went back. When we asked for help enabling the plan, the kind ladies at the desk of the hotel informed us that we failed to purchase the actual SIM card. This was just the plan that enabled said card. So we went back to the 7-11, only to find out that one requires a passport in order to purchase a SIM card. Back to the hotel, up 3 flights of stairs, and back to the 7-11. By now, the locals on the street were beginning to smile and wave us. But all was not yet solved. A full half hour of the two 7-11 employees looking at the passport, making phone calls, avoiding eye contact with us, and trying to explain some complex problem in very basic English later, we got the card. The ladies at the hotel did some magic with the phone, and we were in business.
In order to get downtown, we decided to use a river taxi instead of the train. We had been so scarred by the scam artists of the previous day that as soon as we got to the river taxi station, we rebuffed all overt offers of help from the masses of people around us, pushing to the desk. At this point, we found out that all of the Thai crowded around us were in fact employees of the river taxi, and earnest in their desire to help us purchase tickets. Cynicism tempered, we thanked them and boarded the boat.
The Chao Phraya River is a confusing color from afar. Up close, the appearance crystallizes into a grungy pea-soup green, seasoned liberally with rubbish. The smell was unpleasant, but it came in waves, befitting a body of water.
The shoreline was a puzzle. Sandwiched between waterfront resorts and massive bank buildings were rough shacks and rotting docks. The green of trees, vines, shrubs, shouldering for rent.
We landed, and had the first of many cheap Southeast Asian beers. While it's a bit like picking your favorite politician, I'd have to say that Singha might be one of the better options in a market where top honors are given to choices described as "inoffensive."
Exploring the city, we were amazed at the animal life that still managed to be present. The canals writhed with fish and Asian water monitors (the first of these uncomfortably large lizards that we saw was a rather jarring experience). We spied real turtles in a fake pond on a fake mountain topped with a real temple.
The temple was called the Golden Mount, or Wat Saket, and was situated like everything else in Bangkok: right in the middle of things. Apparently the steep feature was the result of several failed construction projects, and was eventually regarded as a natural hill. The sides were reinforced with concrete in the 40's, although full-grown trees fill the cracks in the walls. It being our first proper temple, we shed our shoes like civilized citizens and minced our way respectfully through the burning incense.
From the top, it was a panoramic vista of a decidedly shabby city. All due respect to Bangkok - I just don't find cities to be particularly pretty.
We descended, more emboldened now that we had attained the summit, ringing bells and banging gongs. The monk style of going-ringing appears to be a subtle one, as if you're trying to wake the infirmed for a bowl of soup. Our fashion was a bit less dainty and a lot more majestic. I don't think the Buddha was offended.
We had lunch and made it back to what would become our central hub: Khao San Road. This road is a haven to backpackers and tourists, with signs in English promising everything from Thai-style massages during the day (so wonderful) to obscene ping-pong shows at night (don't look it up, I'm serious) (we didn't go). While we didn't stay directly on Khao San, it was a spectacle to behold at any time of the day. Brimming with young, Western party-goers, it is a place where culture doesn't exist and scams run rampant. Pleasant enough to explore during the day, we only spent one evening on it's stained sidewalks. And yes, I ate a scorpion on a stick. It just tasted burnt.
The morning of our third day in Bangkok, we went for a run in the city, which was an adventure. We had met a wonderful Icelandic couple the night before, sharing some fantastic Pad Thai with them on the street, and had made tentative plans to explore the palace and some other sightseeing landmarks about town, but the crowds and the chaos was just too much. We did some looking online and found that a train would be leaving in one hour, and going straight to Cambodia. We shrugged and bolted across town, with just enough time to grab some noodles for the trip.