Feb 20, 2005

Day 2: Second first impressions of Thailand, Bangkok

Our experience of Bangkok last night was limited to the airport, our hotel, and the kilometer or so of hot, exhaust-rich air between. The smells and relatively lax approach to cleanliness and other cosmetic details in buildings reminded me of experiences in Mexico. Daylight and more interaction with the Thai people further the comparison in my mind. The place is just waaaay more laid back than Japan or the U.S.

Our hotel's hourly airport shuttle proves to be a reliable and quite handy form of transportation, as the train station for our ride into town is right across from Terminal 1. We plunk down 10 Baht (about 25 cents) for two tickets to Bangkok, then, with half an hour til our train arrives, we satisfy our grumbling tummies with a delicious spicy noodle soup at the station's open-air cafeteria. Condiments on the table include dry crushed chillies, chillies in something like vinegar, nampla (fish sauce), and sugar - season to taste. 75 Baht ($2) for the two of us, bottled water included. When will I cease to be amazed by the prices?

The regular train takes about an hour from Don Muang station to the Hualamphong terminal in Bangkok, passing a near-continuous stream of corrugated steel shanty towns and stray dogs along the way.

By the time we reach Hualamphong it's about 11 am, and I'm anxious to get some sightseeing done. We've got another early day tomorrow, after all. In my hurry to reach the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha), I make the first of two mistakes on this trip: I fail to bargain for a taxi rate. Sure, many taxis in Bangkok now have working meters, but my brain empties itself of this fact the instant a sly tout approaches. He offers to drive us for 200 Baht, but Rie's meanwhile begun talking to a tuk-tuk driver, who's also mentioned a figure around 200. To keep things simple and quick, I say we just go with the first guy. Rie's not happy, but she goes along.

As soon as we get in the taxi, the driver does what all the guidebooks warn of: he tries to convince us that we really want to go shopping for a new suit of clothes instead. I'm now painfully aware of my error, and later learn that the ride should have cost us no more than 50 Baht. Live and learn.

The Grand Palace complex, which includes Wat Phra Kaew, stands in stark contrast to the Thailand we've seen so far. Absolutely stunning in detail and shine. Most surfaces, including the stone walkways, were clean enough you could just about eat off of them. And densely packed with structures and statues (see the first photo below). The density made it hard to get good photos of anything large, so below are mostly details. Guardian deities, a lotus that caught Rie's eye, a many-headed snake, and the ever-present glitter and gold. Click for expanded views.

After spending a few hours walking around the temple and palace grounds, we headed north to the national theatre to buy tickets for Friday's khon dance drama performance. Then we strolled back along the Chao Phraya river to the nearest dock, caught the river express to the aromatic Chinatown quarter, and grabbed some skewered snacks on our way back to Hualamphong station.

5:30 train back to the airport, shuttle to our hotel, and to bed in time to catch some z's before our 4 am wakeup.


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