Our time in Thailand was coming to an end. Christmas was coming, and we had a few days in Bangkok for shopping, catching up with old friends, exploring, and templing. From there we would head to Bali to share some vacation time with Mark’s brother and his family before going to Australia for the holidays.
Sometimes it’s the people rather than the place
From Chiang Mai we headed to the South Coast to Siracha to meet up with a London friend before heading back to Bangkok. Sadly, Siracha is not where they make the sauce – it’s made in NEW YORK CITY! Just kidding, it’s made in California, and whether it originated in Thailand is up for debate. At any rate, I found no Siracha in Siracha, and was severely disappointed.
But not all was lost. We saw a “regular” part of Thailand, witnessed some beautiful sunsets, took a dramatically crowded bobbing wooden boat to the lovely Ko Si Chang island, where we visited a brightly coloured (if not rather strange) temple, took a private tuk tuk tour of the island, had a fabulous lunch of fresh fish right on the beach, and toured a ruined royal palace. It was a fantastic side trip, and of course, always wonderful to see old friends.
I didn’t know what to expect from Bangkok. Would I love it? Hate it? Would it be too much? How much would I have to shield my son’s innocent eyes from the debauchery which makes this city infamous?
Like many places, Bangkok is more than the sum of its parts. After passing miles of slums on the train, we arrived in Bangkok to our hotel, a gorgeous Art Deco villa with a curved facade, and beautiful teak detailing, run by an equally stylish older woman, whose hotel reflected her timeless grace. The Sourire at Rattana Kosin Island was a lovely sanctuary in an otherwise chaotic city, and we ended up extending our stay there by three days because we loved it so much.
In the thick of it
We were near the Khao San Road, famous as a backpacker street of open air bars, cafes, hostels, street food, and nightlife. We loved walking down that street, stopping for a cheap beer to watch the night pass by. Equally brilliant for people watching and cheap food and beer is the nearby Rambuttri Alley, another colourful street lined with more cafes than bars, but still with a joyous atmosphere that screams “holiday!”
There was nothing here that worried me about Austin seeing, and I was beginning to wonder whether Bangkok has an unfair reputation. Did the girls who are capable of shooting things from their nether regions really exist? We’re girly boys just another word for transexuals?
We’d learn a few nights later, after a wrong turn through a market, that yes, there is “that” side to Bangkok. But it wasn’t the barely dressed dancing girls that upset me the most, and made me want to whisk my son out of there. It was the signs advertising “Fresh young boys” that made my stomach turn, grip his little hand a little tighter, and silently cry for the lives that have been destroyed by this ugly underbelly of Asian tourism.
It’s often an economic decision for these boys. Either live in poverty for the rest of your life, or commit yourself to the sex trade for a career that will bring money, but not respect or love. There are of course, the young boys sold or committed to this trade against their will, but there are also the willing. Boys as young as 9 sometimes begin taking female hormones to prevent puberty, and transform into “girly boys”, a lucrative dark corner of the dark trade.
Yes, I’ve judged with my western perceptions. It sickens me to think that this is for the benefit of western pedophiles who have less “access” back home. It’s no more sad and destructive just because it’s in Asia. The image of that sign has seared itself into my mind, and I’m certain it’s not one I’ll soon forget.
Travel like a local
We moved around Bangkok by canal boat, placing our lives into the hands of boat drivers with a death wish, as we sped along the canals behind rows and rows of houses, covered in flowering plants that were no doubt regularly kept watered by the spray from these boats.
The long wooden boats had clear tarps rolled up along the sides, and strung along by a pulley system so that you could protect yourself from the spray from your own boat, or other passing boats. These protective covers were absolutely essential, and the other passengers got a bit grumpy if you didn’t employ one! For about 30 cents per ride, we made our way all over the city, and got a glimpse into backyard Bangkok that we’d never have seen from the street.
We travel in expat communities, and we have no shortage of friends stationed around the world. Bangkok was no exception, and we were treated to a local expat’s foodie tour and insight into the culture and the ways of the Thai people.
We know from our own experience that expats know and understand a place sometimes better even than the locals do. We’ve had to observe, study, make mistakes and live in amongst the locals until we ourselves become part of it. We’re hyper aware of the tics that make a culture unique – and those which might less obviously contrast with our own. We’d never have seen this side of Bangkok were it not for our friend taking the time to show us around…and we’d never have fallen in absolute love with a chocolate peanut butter dessert in Thailand either!
The Temples of Bangkok
Mark and Austin were worn out with temples after Chiang Mai, but Bangkok had too many beautiful temples to pass up. So I coerced them into another wat tour, and it’s here that Austin found his very favourite wat.
Loha Prasat is situated near the National Palace, and is architecturally unique – one of three wats known to have been designed in the world this way. It’s concentric squares are laid out in a grid, with five floors of corridors stretching out in each of the cardinal directions, creating an orderly pattern through which the monks meditatively walk.
At the end of each corridor sat a Buddha, and outside were 37 magnificent metal spires shining in the sunlight against white plaster walls and blue skies, representing each of the 37 virtues toward enlightenment in the Buddhist faith. It was cool and peaceful inside, fiery and bright outside.
I loved the orderliness of this wat, and could have walked barefoot along its cool tiled floors for hours. Mark enjoyed the views across Bangkok, and Austin loved the design. Finally, a wat we could all agree upon! There were dozens of other shining wats in the area around the Democracy monument, but Loha Prasat was our favourite.
Nearby, was the Thailand National Palace, home to the Jade Buddha and the royal family. Strict dress codes are in place at this colossal palace complex, and just covering my shoulders with a scarf wasn’t going to cut it. I needed to be dressed to my elbows, and I was not. As we were turned away, we noticed the thousands of tourists lined up outside of each part of the palace grounds, and decided then that a peek in from outside would probably suffice. It was hot, crowded, and full of traps and scams for tourists, and we just weren’t in the mood for it.
As we left, we happened to walk down a market street that appeared to be one long Buddhist Monk’s Outfitting Wholesalers. There were shops full of saffron and maroon coloured robes, cloth monk bags, spirit houses, amulets, incense by the bag, and tens of thousands of Buddha statues in every size, colour and material. It was odd to see such sacred emblems loading sideways onto the back of a truck – but we saw just that! It was possibly the most golden coloured street I’ve ever traversed and ever will!
On our last day, we made our way across the gridlocked city to Ayutthaya, the former capital of Siam from 1350 to 1767, when it was sacked, and the capital was moved down river to where Bangkok sits today. It’s an impressively sprawling city of ancient wats built of stone, and have that crumbled ancient look that makes something you might have seen a dozen times that bit more attractive. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and for good reason. The temples are gorgeous, imposing, and have stood the test of time.
When I said they boys were done with wats days before, I meant it, but we had shopped, walked, caught up with old friends, and saw all the sights we wanted to see in Bangkok. This was the last feature of our itinerary. After a two hour train and bus ride across the city, we secured a tuk tuk to take us to the different sites for about £15 for 4 hours. Our driver dutifully waited outside each complex, while we slowly melted in the sweltering December heat.
The conical temples stood tall. Some straight, some wonky. Some still intact, others crumbling. The famous face overgrown by tree roots is here, as are two enormous reclining Buddha.
Eventually, our driver picked up on the fact that we were too hot for another wat, and proudly announced “last one!” As he drove off to wait us out in the shade, and we climbed up over and around our final Thai wat of our trip. They were impressive, gorgeous, and so very ancient. But we were finally done with wats.
We feel like we barely scratched the surface in Thailand. We used up every day of our visa, and contemplated coming back for more. But Christmas waits for no man, and our six year old had a date Kris Kringle, and it was time to move on
After a (very) rainy week in (very) polluted Bali with Mark’s brother and his family, we landed in Australia, and were met by our Aussie family, thrilled to see us despite our 11pm arrival and smelly bags of festering clothes. We’d spend the next two months catching up with friends and family before heading back into Asia.
First, a stopover in Kuala Lumpur (we can’t escape that place) and then right into Cambodia for….the Mother of all wats, Angkor Wat.