Here was the plan for my first full day in Bangkok:
- Wear myself out sightseeing.
- Stay up until 10 or 11 p.m.
- Sleep for eight hours and be magically adjusted to this time zone.
Here’s what actually happened:
- Wore myself out sightseeing.
- Passed out at 6 p.m. and slept for eight hours until 2 a.m.
- But not for eight hours straight because I was awakened by a phone call from the hotel front desk at 10:30 p.m. telling me that due to Monday morning’s planned protests I should leave for the airport four hours early.
- Left my hotel seven hours before my flight so so as to avoid traffic and now have another five hours to kill at the airport.
So pretty rock solid planning, I’d say. But let’s start at the beginning:
Having awoken at 4 a.m. on Sunday, I was easily the first guest to sample the hotel’s breakfast buffet when it opened at 6:30 a.m.; it was a mix of questionable American-style meat products and much-less-questionable Thai fried rice and vegetable stir fries. I opted for the less questionable. True factoid: the minibar in my hotel room features, beer, hard liquor, nuts, candies and a pack of condoms. That’s a party waiting to happen.
After breakfast I walked a kilometer over to the BTS SkyTrain Surasak stop. The SkyTrain is Bangkok’s partial solution to its awful traffic — kind of like Chicago’s El, only with way more Hello Kitty art on the inside. The SkyTrain is modern, fast and air conditioned to feel like Finland in January. Luckily, pretty much all the public signage here is in both Thai and English, so it’s quite easy to get around.
It was a fast SkyTrain ride to the Chao Praya river, where I caught the Chao Praya Express boat for 15 baht (50 cents) toward the Grand Palace. Although Bangkok’s traffic is miserable, there’s a convenient river running smack through the center of the city, and it’s one of the best ways to get around.
The boat ride took about a half hour and deposited me just steps from the Grand Palace. Unfortunately, I was a half hour early, so I took a stroll as part of my stated quest to wear myself out.
Thailand has very strict dress codes for entering palaces and temples. I’d been careful to wear long pants and to leave my tank tops in 1979 where they belong. Click on the photo below to read the full dress code and the very important warning at the bottom!
After paying admission I spent a couple hours exploring the Grand Palace, which is (as advertised) exceptionally grand.
There are several other “must see” attractions near the Grand Palace, but since I’ll be back here toward the end of my trip I decided to must not see them yesterday. Instead, I rewound my journey so I could get a welcome almost-afternoon nap.
But not before partaking for the first time in the legendary Thai street food. I’d read that Thailand had good street food, but what hadn’t really gotten across was how plentiful it is. It’s not like you have to walk several blocks to find street food vendors. They are on every street, all the time. No matter what happens, I am not going to go hungry here.
I sampled various kinds of meat on a stick — pork, chicken, and lemongrass pork sausages. Delicious!
My Bangkok hotel sits directly across from a small market, and the alleyway I walk down after exiting the front door passes by dozens of small food and fruit vendors. Like I said, not gonna go hungry.
After an hour nap I was ready to go again, so I hopped back on the SkyTrain to go to the Chatuchak Weekend Market. It’s the last stop on the SkyTrain line, so I got a very nice aerial tour of Bangkok. This city is big, and the air quality is horrible, but it’s also a very exciting, very cosmopolitan town.
Chatuchak Weekend Market is considered to be one of the largest open-air markets in the world. There are maps all over the place, and I was still lost for most of the time I was in there. It has pretty much anything you could possibly want to purchase. Food? Clothing? Textiles? Pets? Antiques? Leather? Some of the shops are VERY specialized. A shop selling nothing but soaps shaped like fruits and vegetables? You betcha!
I wandered around for about an hour, taking in the sights, eating more meat on a stick and drinking fresh-squeezed orange and grape juice. Each meat-on-a-stick costs 30 cents. A glass of orange juice costs 60 cents. This place is cheap.
Eventually I stumbled across an open-air massage shop, and I paid $7.50 for an hour-long “foot and shoulder massage.” The lady giving my massage was tiny but powerful. It was a mix of traditional and Thai massage, with a fair amount of stretching and flexibility work. She seemed to take issue with my incredibly tight hip flexors, so she went to work on them, in the process coming surprisingly near to my own meat on a stick, if you catch my drift. Overall it was slightly painful and quite wonderful. I left the market feeling light on my feet.
After a brief rest in a nearby park I headed back to the hotel and intended to do some light work before heading out later for dinner.
What actually happened: I fell down face first on the bed and slept for four a half hours, until the front desk called to tell me that Monday an epic traffic-snarling protest march was planned and that I should leave for the airport four hours early. I rolled back over and slept for another 3 – ½ hours, finally waking fully rested at 2 a.m.
Not only is my body clock still fully NOT on Thailand time, but it’s not on Portland time either. I think my body believes that I’m in Spain.
At 4 a.m. I wandered out to look for some dinner/breakfast, but the street food vendors weren’t open yet. Luckily, there’s a 24-hour 7-Eleven on every corner, so I picked up some 7-Eleven brand meat-on-a-stick (of course), hard boiled eggs and water. After snacking and packing up, I checked out of the hotel at 6 a.m. and caught a cab to Don Mueang airport. In a combination of very bad Thai (mine) and slightly-less-bad English (the cab driver), we determined that it was probably a good idea to leave this early. The traffic was dicey even before the protest was to start. (More on Thailand’s politics in a future blog, as soon as I figure it out.)
Now I’m currently parked at the airport for the next (looking at watch) four hours and 40 minutes.
Don Mueang is Thailand’s “old” airport. It was closed when the gargantuan new Suvarnabhumi (pronounced “JFK”) Airport opened in 2006, but with air travel exploding in Thailand (figuratively), several low-cost carriers re-opened Don Mueang to help handle the volume of traffic. Now there are three discount carriers operating out of Don Mueang.
All that is to say that this airport does not have the wealth of international dining options as its counterpoint, so after checking into my Air Asia flight I went downstairs to arrivals and out the door, across a rickety overpass, toward a nearby neighborhood where I picked up some breakfast meat-on-a-stick and sticky rice. My Thai remains so shockinly bad that the breakfast lady had to tell me four times how much it cost, and I finally just handed her a wad of money and let her pick out the proper amount. I’ve got to learn to listen more for the tones, because there’s a big difference beween five baht and 1,000.
Four more hours to kill. Time to go look for some noodles for mid-morning snack and get ready for my discount flight to Chiang Mai. My airplane ticket to northern Thailand cost $39. I have a strong suspicion that some of us passengers are going to have to chip in for gas halfway through the flight.